Ch10 Pt5 Paw paws and confidence.

I had gained maximum experience from Eurobodalla Shire. However with the appointment of the new Deputy all promotion was blocked for me. I wrote away for a job as “B” grade clerk at Tweed Shire Headquarters at Murwillumbah. I would drop a grade, but Tweed Shire was a big undertaking, and I hoped to gain more experience in the costing and plant side as well as some knowledge of mechanised accounting. I also thought that should I get stuck there, it would not be a bad town for the family, being in close proximity to the Gold Coast and Brisbane. I was accepted without interview, and set off to drive six hundred miles north, leaving Irene and the children in Moruya until she could organise furniture removal. This was what deterred people from moving around more in those days, I am sure – the high cost of removals.

I set off on Friday afternoon, and felt very uneasy about the car from the beginning. It just didn’t feel right. I got to Wollongong in the evening, and as night fell, started to climb the steep ascent of Bulli Pass. The engine got weaker and weaker, and finally conked out altogether when I was about a third of the way up the pass. I was unaware of it at the time, but the old fashioned timing had slipped. Of course, it was such an old and worn out engine that it probably wouldn’t have made it anyway. Now I was truly in strife, and I was only pleased that Irene and the children were safe and sound and probably asleep in Moruya.

After a while I heard a car coming down the pass accompanied by much singing and shouting and merriment. I stepped out into the dark road to halt it. Three young fellows had been celebrating somewhere, but they were only too happy to get out of their vehicle and give me a hand. They physically lifted my car and pointed the front end downhill back in the direction of Wollongong. Unfortunately the exhaust once again fell off in the process, but this had now become a minor matter. So I taxied downhill, the engine creating a tremendous noise every time I touched the accelerator. At the bottom of the pass the road became a series of gentle rises and falls into the centre of town, but I found that although the engine roared like a bracket of bofors guns when I put my foot down, I could barely make it over each gentle rise, so weak was the pulling power of the engine. I therefore drove into the first service station I came to and begged for help.

It was at this stage that I suddenly realised that when I stopped, the car seemed to behave like a concertina and actually seemed to draw itself together and stretch itself out. On closer examination I found that the chassis of the car had been broken in several places, but some previous owner had bolted the bits and pieces together. The bolts now seemed to be coming loose. It was suddenly very clear to me that not only would I not get to Murwillumbah in this car, but that I would not even get to Sydney without the whole mess collapsing somewhere en route. 

I was now in a near panic. My wife and children were in Moruya, under notice to quit their residence. I was in Wollongong late on Friday night with a heap of a car fit only for the junk yard. I had to get up to the Queensland border and start work on Monday morning, and I had very little money.

I finally arranged with the service station proprietor that he would garage my car until I could make suitable arrangements. In addition, for five precious pounds, after he closed his business he would drive me to Caringbah, on the outskirts of Sydney. At Caringbah – Taren Point, to be exact – I looked up my old friend Lionel, whom Irene and I had met on the Ranchi when we were all migrating to the promised land of Australia. It was one o’clock in the morning when I got Lionel and his wife “Johnnie” out of bed. But when I told them the nature of my problem, they were only too pleased to help.

We arranged that in the morning their son-in-law, whom I knew, and who had a powerful old Chev, would take his vehicle down to Wollongong and physically tow me and my old car back to Lionel’s place. Lionel would then store the Morris in his own back garden until we could do something about it. This would enable me to catch the train to Murwillumbah and start work Monday morning. It is certainly good to have friends. Four years before, I had helped Lionel to dig out the foundations for his house. I had laid bricks for him and helped him stand up his frame. I must have cast my bread upon the waters, because he certainly saved my bacon on this occasion.

We stayed at Murwillumbah for one year. 

I think that our arrival in this town was our low point. For a few terrible weeks I had a feeling of absolute failure. The capital we had gained from the sale of our house in Caringbah had been eroded by the purchase of an old bomb of a car and two furniture removals over substantial distances. I had had two jobs in one year and suddenly seemed to be very unstable. Prices were rising everywhere and I was no longer sure of my touch. I had had two years of miserable lack of success at my examinations, although I believed that I had worked to the maximum. I questioned the wisdom of leaving Sydney. I even questioned the wisdom of coming to Australia. I questioned my own ability.

We were staying in one of four Council flats at Tumbulgum on the banks of the Tweed River just out of Murwillumbah. It was a picturesque location, but the flats were old and the haunt of immense cockroaches, which hid behind the picture rails and skirting board and disgusted us. We decided to build again.

We bought a block of ground on the top of the ridge overlooking the town of Murwillumbah in one direction and with a beautiful view up the Tweed Valley in the other. At the end of the valley one saw Mount Warning, so aptly named by Captain Cook as it lifted its unmistakable crest into the sky. On either side of the valley, lovely, orderly banana plantations climbed up the slopes, presenting a scene of marvellous sub-tropical beauty. Only a short distance from the town pineapple plantations stretched themselves across paddocks of volcanic red soil. Paw-paws grew like weeds. Sugar cane was everywhere. 

In Sydney, Lionel had got rid of our car for sixty pounds, and sent us up the money with great promptitude, which I much appreciated. The car was such a wreck that I would have thought myself lucky to get forty pounds for it. A spring had collapsed, and he had actually had to weld it before getting rid of the vehicle. (Imagine a welded spring!)                                        

I drew up plans and specifications for a house, copying the plans out myself laboriously several times to save money with pen and Indian ink kindly supplied by the Building Inspector. But now I had difficulty in finding a builder. We finally ran someone to earth who could start building in a couple of months. The house was lined inside and out with fibro, again to save costs. I was to paint the interior myself. Despite all these machinations, I was still fifty pounds short after I had borrowed the maximum amount of money that the local branch of the Rural Bank was prepared to lend me.

Back in Sydney, I had bought Irene an electric sewing machine, another one of those luxuries which my mother had aspired to, but had never been able to obtain – she had thought herself lucky to get a treadle model. Irene now sold her sewing machine for exactly fifty pounds, and we were in business.

I now went up to our block – on top of the hill in Myrtle Street – every weekend to clear it, for it was completely covered with lantana. Patricia came with me, while Irene looked after Peter, still a very small boy, in the flat at Tumbulgum. Patricia wandered around picking flowers and sunbaking while I wielded a brush hook and mattock and rolled large amounts of lantana a hundred feet and more downhill behind us. It was only later that I discovered that this area was a breeding ground for black snakes. A tree in front of the block harboured amongst its roots a family of a dozen snakes. They went squirming in every direction when we subsequently had it snigged out. Immediately across the road, in a mess of lantana, a cross-bred terrier used to come down every day and catch himself a black snake. These reptiles were extremely venomous, and had I known of their close proximity, I certainly wouldn’t have brought Patricia with me, and would have been much more careful myself when clearing the block.

However, clear the block we did. Our house went up, and within about eight months of coming to Murwillumbah, we had moved in. The house was perched on thick wooden “stumps” about six feet high. These were anchored into a huge slab of concrete, which became an open air laundry. It was my intention to enclose this when I got some money. I now began to landscape the front garden and to lay down a huge concrete driveway between the house and the road. All the concrete was mixed up by hand, and by the time the job was finished, I felt finished too.

I was still studying for my Town Clerk’s certificate by correspondence, and this time went for my examinations to the Murwillumbah High School, under the supervision of one of the local teachers. I took several subjects at the same time. If I succeeded in all of them, I should have obtained my ticket, but in view of unsatisfactory results in previous years, I was not very confident. I had now had considerable experience, and knew what I was talking about. However, the exams were becoming more difficult with every passing year, and I was sure that there was a deliberate attempt to limit the number of successful candidates. When I had finished, I felt that I had done a good job. But I had felt like this on previous occasions, only to find my optimum rudely shattered when the results came out.

I forgot about the exam, and turned my attention to the house and garden. I planted some paw paws, and they grew like Jack’s famous beanstalk. Everything grew in this steamy, tropical climate. 

Ch10 Pt4 Moruya and the toy car

Whilst still working at Hurstville, and as an additional task, as if the Clerks Course wasn’t enough, I built a thirty foot glassed-in verandah and extra bedroom on the back of our house at Caringbah. I did everything myself, from the concrete and drainage to the roofing, window-flashing and floorboard cramping. Once again, although it might have been amateurish in many ways, it was as solid as the rock of Gibraltar and never leaked anywhere, which was more than might have been said of some houses put up by professional builders. I thought that I was beginning to learn some of that good old Australian versatility, and was mightily pleased with myself. The glassed-in verandah with its huge six-foot louvres was intended for Patricia to play on as she grew up. The extra bedroom was for our first son, Peter, who was born at Kogarah hospital in 1954. (After the experience at the Jacaranda Private Hospital where Irene had actually been left by the doctor in the middle of delivery while he went to attend to a call elsewhere, I had grown wary of private hospitals. I had come to realise that a modern hospital with all the best equipment and ample staff available for every emergency was a far better proposition from the patient’s point of view).

After Peter’s birth, Patricia and I went to the hospital one day, Patricia being just old enough to toddle around and hold my hand. We had our first glimpse of Peter through a glass screen being held up by a nurse. He was a red-faced little fellow with screwed-up eyes, and a huge red nose, just like his old man, poor little chap. Never mind, son. All the better to smell with. Subsequently, of course, Peter’s face gained more normal proportions. Patricia and I went upstairs to see Irene, and I blundered into the maternity ward just as the mothers were feeding their babies, and was roundly told off by the nurse in charge. However, the new mothers all seemed very proud of themselves and didn’t mind a bit. As for me, well, I know of no more beautiful sight on this earth than a mother nursing her child. Irene was also very pleased with herself. She now had a son as well as a daughter. Moreover the birth had been very much easier. 

“I’m quite pleased with him, quite pleased with him,” she kept saying, grinning like a Cheshire cat, and sounding as if she had won the lottery.

However, Peter was not long to inhabit the little room I had built for him. They had promised me a rise of one grade to “B” grade at Sutherland Shire after one year of satisfactory service. After a year, I asked for the rise, but was refused. I thought this was very rude of them, as I had never had any complaints about my work, and again took to consulting The Sydney Morning Herald on Saturdays, when the local government advertisements were published. Within a month I had been offered and had accepted a job as “A” grade clerk at Eurobodalla Shire at Moruya, on the coast, some two hundred miles to the south of Sydney. We sold the house for three thousand two hundred pounds, and I moved down to Moruya, while Irene stayed in Caringbah to finish off details of the sale and organise the transfer of our furniture. Before I left, however, I bought a second hand Morris 8/40 motor car, 1939 vintage, from a man I knew at Sutherland Shire and thought was my mate. 

Alack and alas!! How many times have I told myself to trust nobody, and how many times have I failed to take my own advice! The cylinders of this wreck of a car were dreadfully scored, and on the way down to Moruya from Sydney, it seemed to consume voraciously equal parts of petrol and oil. As we put-putted along, we left a technicolour trail of blue smoke behind us.

That car gave me untold trouble. I was booked the only time in my life when the exhaust fell off, just as I had to rev up to start on a steep hill at Narooma, amidst a bottleneck of tourist traffic. I put my foot on the accelerator, let the brake out to get away, and there was a sound like a rocket blasting off. Naturally this happened at the exact spot where a tough looking police constable was monitoring the holiday traffic. He jumped six feet in the air, like a startled acrobat, then came at me waving his arms and wanting to know my name, rank and number. The position was exacerbated because on this day of all days, I had left my driving licence at home. That little episode cost me ten bob.

It was a dreadful car.

On another occasion, when Irene, I and the children were travelling in the direction of Eden towards the Victorian border, we stopped for a breather and just happening to glance at the rear of the car, I noticed that the differential housing had pulled apart and I had lost all my oil through great gaping gaps. When I put my hand on the diff, the metal was hot enough to fry an egg on. 

To resume my story, I left Irene up in Sydney, and went down to Moruya to start work. I once again left my old job on Friday and started at Moruya on Monday, thus saving a year’s holiday pay to help cover the removal expenses.

I was renting a large old house next to the Council Chambers in Campbell Street, Moruya. Most weekends, while Irene was still in Sydney, I would sleep on a camp bed until half past two in the morning Saturdays, then rise to the shriek of my alarm clock and catch the bus to the rail terminal at Bomaderry, about a hundred and thirty miles north. We arrived at six o’clock in the morning, and I would catch the steam train to Sydney, generally finishing up in Caringbah a little after midday. I returned Sunday nights to Bombaderry, then caught the early morning bus back to Moruya. They were whacko weekends all right, and I always went to sleep very early Monday evenings, absolutely exhausted. I had taken the old Morris car to Moruya, but parked it in the shed behind the Council Chambers, and did not use it very often because of its unreliability. After about three months, Irene came down with the furniture and the children. A furniture removalist had agreed to shift our stuff down in his lorry for a hundred pounds, which was not unreasonable, considering the distance to be travelled. It was a special trip, and he was taking advantage of it to bring his girl friend down. On their way back to Sydney, after our furniture had been removed, the van would be turned into a love nest for the amorous couple. Neither Irene nor I cared what they did afterwards, as long as they delivered our furniture safely. When they eventually made the trip, the weather was thickly foggy, and Irene has horrific recollections of sitting in the cab with Patricia and Peter in her arms while the driver drove down Bulli Pass, probably one of the steepest and most dangerous roads in the State at that time, with visibility of about three feet. They eventually turned up safe and sound. We transferred our furniture to the big old house at Moruya, and settled in.

At Moruya, I worked harder than at any time in my life before. The Statements of Accounts were years behind. Everything was done by hand; mechanical aids, even like simple adding machines, were conspicuous by their absence. I gained an enormous amount of experience, but I wondered why, if this was local government, I had not volunteered for Siberia. Eric, the Shire Clerk, was a very nice and understanding bloke, but he was understaffed, and we were all overworked. In addition it was winter, and suddenly I felt the cold. We warmed our bath water with an old-fashioned chip heater. Our fire was fed by timber from a heap of mill offcuts I chopped in the back garden. Since our house was right next to the Council Chambers the temptation to bring work home or go next door and do it was irresistible, particularly as there was such an enormous amount to do. Jack, the Deputy, who had come at the same time as I, and who was Peter’s godfather when he was christened at the local Church of England, gave up after a few months, and took a job elsewhere. An unqualified Deputy came from Sydney, and as this blocked my own promotion and things were starting to get me down, I thought that perhaps we ought to move on. There were eight hundred people in Moruya at that time, and the small town atmosphere after the big city was very difficult for both Irene and me to accustom ourselves to.

I had now begun to do the balance of my course by correspondence through the Sydney Tech, and one way and the other had no time for leisure or my family at all.

At this time, a haemangioma, or superfluity of blood vessels on Peter’s eyelid began to worry us. He was born with it, but now could not shut his eye properly, and when he eventually went to sleep, one eye remained partially open, giving the impression of a villainous, perpetual wink. We secured an appointment with an eye specialist in Wollongong. Eric insisted on filling our car up with petrol from the Council pump, and one dark evening at midnight, after having left Patricia with a friend, I drove off northwards. Irene was at my side. Peter slept peacefully in a basket on the back seat.

I doubt if I shall ever forget that ride. The performance of the car was always uncertain, but I knew that I absolutely had to get Peter and Irene to the specialist at nine o’clock the next morning. Huge semi-trailers seemed to bear down on us out of the darkness every few moments. I hated the wretched car that I was driving, and was conscious of my responsibility for that young life in the basket on the back seat. Neither did I forget Patricia sleeping peacefully back in Moruya. Every two hours I stopped and by torchlight refilled the sump with oil from bottles that I carried. It was a nightmare drive, but Peter slept peacefully through it all. I was very pleased when dawn came up as we entered Nowra, and for the first time I was able to top that wretched sump up with oil without the necessity of balancing a torch to do so.

The specialist in Wollongong examined Peter benignly without turning a hair, and informed us that any fears we might have were groundless. A haemangioma such as this was not at all uncommon and would right itself of its own accord within a few years. If there was no improvement by the time Peter was four or five, we should come to see him again. Much relieved, back we went to Moruya. But before leaving Wollongong I bought a toy pedal motorcar which Patricia and subsequently Peter got quite a bit of fun out of. It might have been some sort of sublimation. I had always longed for such a toy when I was a kid, but my family had never been able to afford such extravagance. Now my kids enjoyed it!

Ch10 Pt3 Owning our first car

With the commencement of the New Year (1950), whilst we were still living in the garage, I had commenced a course of instruction for my certificate of town clerk. The course lasted ideally for three years, but few people finished in that time. I found the accountancy and law extremely difficult to absorb after so many years away from school. I would go to the Sydney Technical College three nights a week direct from work. I walked from the College back to Central Station reaching it just before eleven o’clock. At this time, having had no tea, a packet of “Zac-a-Bag” chips from the stall that used to stand in the big square was very welcome. I would then hurry through the subway to board the eleven o’clock train, after which it was an hour’s run to Caringbah. Getting off there at midnight, with the last bus long gone, I would briskly walk the mile and a half back to Want Street. With the need to get up early in the morning to go to work, this timetable was strenuous and made one tired at times. Certainly I kept fit. I invariably walked to Caringbah station and back to save the bus fare, and at weekends, there was plenty of work in the garden. At Hurstville I worked for the most part at the counter, and was always dashing back and forth for rate accounts, subdivision maps, or valuation books. In the evenings, when not going to Tech, I sat in the garage and studied. This was all right in the summer. However, the garage was unlined and the eaves were not boxed in. I had filled the interstices with rolled up newspaper, but this was inadequate to prevent the draught coming in. Thus I got very cold, even though I sat with a heavy overcoat on that I had brought from England. On these occasions, Irene retired to bed to keep warm. When we got into the house, of course, the situation improved.

At this stage, we made further material progress. We threw out the old ice-box which we had been using to keep things cool and bought an STC refrigerator. It was the first refrigerator we had ever owned, and I wrote back home to England rather smugly to tell them about our acquisition. It cost us sixty-three pounds, which was about two months’ wages, and I bought it over three years on hire-purchase. We thought that now, with a house, a refrigerator, a carpet square, and a lounge suite, we were really making progress.

I passed the first part of the course, comprising various abstruse arithmetical calculations, commercial law, business methods and organisation, and commercial accountancy up to the dissolution of partnerships. (What good that would be in local government I never could fathom). I now commenced local government law and accountancy, which were far more demanding, and gave me a lot of trouble. My job as cashier at Hurstville offered me no insight whatsoever into accounting matters. Thus, everything I learned was theory, and I could not relate it to practice. Having reached a certain stage, and despite study on a regular basis, I seemed to get stuck. I realised that I would not have been allowed to undertake such a course of study in England due to what was deemed there to be insufficient basic education. Therefore, I had to see the thing through to the end, if only to prove to myself that I did indeed have the capability. 

I was thirty years old. I found the task tremendously hard. But despite some setbacks in examinations and many disappointments, I slowly edged forward. I told myself that if I persevered, I would beat other people who did not have the same constancy of purpose. But I wished with all my heart that I had had the opportunity of studying these subjects twelve years earlier. By this time, I would already have been well ensconced as a clerk to my own council, and the world would have been at my feet. My time in England and the war had taken from me those precious years, and I would never be able to regain them. I had no alternative but to keep on and do my best.

Despite our worries, Irene and I really liked the Caringbah district where we lived. Even though it started to fill up rapidly with houses and the shopping centre down the road began to mushroom, there was still a country atmosphere about our area.

Mary, our neighbour across the road was a typical country woman, wide-hipped, motherly, always in a calico apron. She was slow of movement, broad of speech, but always very kind and considerate. It was she who first taught Irene and me how to bathe young Patricia when she came home from hospital. For the inexperienced, bathing a young baby is rather like washing a large piece of blancmange. They slip and they slither. You know you must control them, but you are afraid of hurting them or dropping them. Mary knelt beside the basin we had placed on the floor, carefully soaped and sluiced our little bundle of joy, dried her gently but firmly, then played with her for a few moments before putting her to bed. 

She was an expert, having had innumerable children of her own. In fact, Mary had forced her husband to take up sleeping quarters in an old shed at the bottom of their garden thus espousing the simplest birth control system of all which says: “Out of sight, out of mind.” He was a ginger haired man, slow moving and with a sly grin. He worked on the Council, camping out on road jobs and only coming home at weekends. But when work finished and pleasure began, he was apparently a hundred per cent macho man, for Mary swore that she only had to look at him to fall pregnant. Her youngest child was a sandy haired boy of two or three years who was already the spitting image of his father. Before his birth, they had apparently sworn to have no more children. But one weekend Mary’s husband, feeling the pangs of loneliness, cunningly brought home in the pocket of his large overcoat a bottle of sweet wine to which Mary was particularly partial. She allowed a few glasses of the delectable stuff to seduce her, and before you could say “Jack Robinson”, they had popped into bed together, and another addition to their extensive family was on the way. They were friendly, uncomplicated and very kind people.

Just down from the Mary lived a woman of about thirty who made all the other ladies in the street jealous. This was because her husband used to do all the house cleaning and washing before he left for work, telling the neighbours that his wife was sick and not very robust. However, the moment he had gone, she would be up and about, dressed up to the nines, strolling around like a Hollywood film star. All the girls were jealous because there was no way that they could make their own husbands do likewise.

Next door to us but one lived old Jim and his wife. She was a strong, black-haired woman, and he a retired schoolteacher. He had gone back to do a bit of additional teaching, and also worked in the bush, coming home only at weekends. Old Jim wasn’t averse to a few glasses of plonk in the pub at weekends after the long, lonely week at work, and I often met him coming down Cook Street, merry of eye and garrulous of speech, carrying with him the faint aroma of fermented grape juice. He had two huge blocks of land with a small creek running through the middle, and the place was a mass of fruit trees, tree ferns and Christmas Bush. It was a sprawling, natural garden paradise where you could lose yourself. The big city seemed a thousand miles away. Their old weatherboard house had stood there for many years, but it was very comfortable. They were kindly, friendly Australians of the old school, not yet tainted by the fast buck philosophy of the twentieth century. When old Jim’s wife died, he married a widow from Wingham, where I had the pleasure of meeting him many years later, still firm and sprightly, though he must have been in his eighties.

I continued to work in local government at this time by choice.

I might actually have had a job in a real estate office in Caringbah at a period when there were only two or three shops in the main street. On another occasion, I actually obtained a job in the personnel department of Ampol Petroleum, but turned it down at the last moment to stay with local government, even though things seemed static and unpromising at the time. My reason for not leaving local government was that after seeing so much poverty in London during the depression, security of income and employment were of tremendous importance to me. This was more especially so since I was in a strange country, and there was absolutely nobody to turn to for support should I fall out of work and be unable to look after my family. I knew from experience that when an economic recession hits, private enterprise jobs can be sudden death for a worker who has reached a certain age, whom his bosses are looking for an excuse to replace.

By the same token, if Irene was to stay at home and look after the children in the way that both she and I thought was essential for their well-being, then I had to earn not just a wage, but a better than average wage. To do this, and to have security too, I had to obtain promotion within the local government service. This I could only do by first passing my examinations, then be willing to travel around to different Councils. However, there was a time restriction. I could only do this when the children were young. Otherwise, their schooling and general upbringing would be disturbed.

There was another thing. The old dictum, (and it is true), says, “A rolling stone gathers no moss…….”. 

So, I had chosen professionalism. But I still had to become a professional, then slot myself in somewhere within five or six years, and certainly before I attained the age of forty. This, then, was the way I had tried to rationalise our future in Australia, and was the plan I tried to follow for the benefit of the Foxon family.

I stayed at Hurstville Council for four years, and during that time applied on several occasions for a rise. Each time I was knocked back on the grounds of inadequate finance. I then began to apply for jobs elsewhere, but not too far from home. (Local government jobs were advertised on a weekly basis in The Sydney Morning Herald.) I was finally offered a job one grade higher at Sutherland Shire Council, headquarters of the local government area in which we lived. I accepted, and when I put in my resignation, my boss offered to lift me two grades if I would stay at Hurstville. I thought that I would gain more experience at Sutherland Shire, so I thanked him and refused. I have often wondered whether I did the right thing, because many changes took place at Hurstville over the next dozen years. However, it also gave me a secret pleasure to tell my boss, who had refused me a well-earned rise, that I now no longer needed his job. In addition, there is no doubt that by starting to move around, I was to enlarge my job experience in a way that I could not otherwise have done. Nevertheless, it was to give me some traumatic experiences as we went from one place to the other.

When I left Hurstville, I took my holiday pay and started straight away with Sutherland Shire. With the money thus saved, we bought our first car, a 1928 Austin Seven, with wire brakes and gravity feed of petrol to the carburettor. It cost us sixty pounds.                                           

In four years we had seen nothing of New South Wales except a limited amount of the City of Sydney. Now, in the Austin 7, already a vintage car, even in those days, and with a top speed with safety of about twenty five miles an hour, we travelled as far as Gosford in the north and Wollongong in the south. Any one of these trips took us all day.  

But our new mobility widened vastly our outlook and understanding of the area in which we lived. We began to appreciate the sandstone and gum tree beauty of the Sydney region, the extent of the New South Wales beaches, and the beauty of vast seascapes.

Ch10 Pt2 Our brick and fibro castle at Want Street

Alack and alas! We had barely been in it a week when there came a sudden downpour of rain – one of those tropical downpours which are so common in southern latitudes, but which we did not seem to experience in England. The rain came through the roof of our garage in buckets. It fell on the second hand chairs and dining room table we had bought. It soaked the second hand bed with its second hand mattress, spotted the second hand wardrobe and kitchen cabinet dividing the living area from the sleeping area, and gathered in pools on our new if somewhat cheap quality lino. Irene sat down and wept. I was at first filled with despair, and then with a blinding rage. After all this effort, was a leaking roof now about to defeat us? We ran around placing pots and pans in strategic positions. I swore that as soon as the rain abated I would fix up that roof so well that not a drop of rain would come in for the next hundred years.

The next day was Saturday and I climbed up to have a look at the corrugated iron close-up. It was second hand, and there were numerous small holes from where it had been previously fixed on some other roof. I walked the mile and a half to Caringbah and bought some bituminous mixture. When I got back, I first plugged every hole with bitumen. I then tore up small strips of tent canvas and put them on top of the holes. Each piece of canvass received a further coat of bitumen and then a coat of paint. When the paint dried, I placed more bitumen on the spot, another piece of canvass, another covering of bitumen, and a further coat of paint. Every nail that held the iron sheeting to the timber rafters was similarly treated. The roof never leaked again while we were there, and I will guarantee that it does not leak to this day.

My job at the Department of Local Government had proved a very present help in trouble. However, I was earning only a labourer’s wage. Indeed, a labourer might have earned more with overtime and odd jobs on the side. Since the Department had the oversight of all the local government Councils in New South Wales, I began to wonder if there might be some future for me in this direction. I therefore composed and had typed something to the order of two hundred letters of application, which I sent to every municipal, shire and county council in the State. I might have received at the most half a dozen replies, which I thought then and still think today was a very poor reflection on local government. However, one of them was from Hurstville Municipal Council, half way between Sydney and Caringbah. They were looking for a clerical assistant, and offered me an interview. I rang up George, the Town Clerk, thanked him for his consideration, and asked when he would like to see me. We arranged an unlikely rendezvous the next Sunday morning at the bus stop just outside Kogarah railway station.                                                

George was a tall, bespectacled, black haired, lantern jawed man of fifty. His accent was aggressively Australian. He chain smoked cigarettes through a long holder. His brown, spaniel-like eyes hid a shrewd and pragmatic mind. He thought before making a statement. But when the statement was made, you could rest assured that it was authoritative and was backed up by a lifetime of experience in guiding the affairs of a local government council. He was the first of a long line of town clerks that I came to know, whom you could recognise almost as you would instinctively recognise schoolmasters, doctors, policemen and bookmakers.

After he got out of his car at Kogarah, we had an impromptu interview on the street corner. He seemed to be satisfied, and invited me back into the car beside him, saying he would take me to look over the Council Chambers at Hurstville. We went into the neat brick and tile building (now regrettably demolished), and after I had looked through the tidy offices with polished lino floors, he asked me if I liked what I saw. I said I did. He explained to me that in this job I would gain a good knowledge of New South Wales local government in a substantial Council and that they would “train me up” so that I would have a steady job in a good atmosphere and something to back me if I went elsewhere. I took all this with a pinch of salt, but on reflection in later years, I began to think that George was probably sincere. We left with the understanding that I should give a week’s notice to the Department of Local Government, then start at Hurstville. I would be a “D” Grade Clerk, and would earn one pound a week more than I was then getting. Moreover, since Hurstville was closer to Caringbah than Central Sydney, my travelling time as well as my fare would be halved. I went home and conveyed the news to Irene with jubilation. Thus, although I did not realise it at the time, I took one of the most important decisions of my life. I decided how I was to earn the money to pay off the mortgage and enable Irene and me to raise our children. The field of endeavour in which I had arrived more or less haphazardly was to take us up and down the coast of New South Wales over half a lifetime, and thus have a decisive influence on the lives of our children.

After we had raised the money to build our garage, Irene had commenced work in the Coles store just down from St. James’ Station. She served behind the sweet counter and finally finished up in charge of the lemonade counter. I think she had the distinction of selling more drinks with less lemonade essence than any other sales assistant within living memory, thus contributing considerably to Coles’ large profit that financial year. Irene worked in Coles for about nine months, and during this time we paid off the mortgage on our garage at a record rate and also bought a very nice lounge suite and an Axminster carpet square from Bebarfeld’s the large furniture store opposite the Sydney Town Hall, in George Street, now occupied by Woolworth’s. It is necessary to realise that in England we had never been able to afford a lounge suite of similar quality to the one that now graced our garage, whilst Axminster carpet was something to which the working man simply did not aspire. We lived on the smell of an oil rag, got up very early, and worked very hard. One week, we had no money after paying debts, and existed on tomatoes grown in the garden and bread and milk bought on credit. But with Irene’s wages and mine we were paying off our commitments at the rate of ten pounds a week. After so many wasted years we were at long last getting ahead.

If we were solving difficulties regarding work and accommodation, on another plane Irene and I were having problems. I had always thought that no man was complete without a wife. Certainly I had found that Irene and I had been of tremendous help to each other during those first lonely and difficult days in Australia. But by extension, no marriage is complete without children. We had been married for three and a half years, and there were no children. Indeed, we had been led to believe in England that there was a strong chance that we should never have any. For me, this was a matter of great sadness, as I am quite sure it was for Irene also. I suppose that you see in your partner desirable qualities you hope may be transmitted to your children. Also there is a natural desire to be related by indissoluble bonds of flesh and blood. This, of course, is the mere beginning of things. What follows after is the serious business of raising the children, and this is what life is really all about. Life may be financially easier without children, but it becomes very empty. Love and affection, those important qualities no money can buy, must inevitably diminish. With children, love and affection increase, and a man and a woman achieve a sense of purpose.

We began to visit the Crown Street Women’s Hospital Sterility Clinic. It was not a pleasant experience. One feels like an animal on a clinician’s dissection table. However, they rapidly diagnosed a condition the pundits in England, by some strange oversight had completely missed – a minor obstruction of the Fallopian tubes, which was quickly rectified.

Irene became pregnant, but had a miscarriage, probably due to the need to carry buckets of water across our block at Caringbah before we had it properly connected to the garage. The next time, she had injections, and we were much more careful. Patricia was conceived in our little green and red silver-roofed garage in Caringbah, and born just after we had entered into occupation of the house we later built on the block.

I shall never forget the day my daughter was born. Indeed, I have remembered that afternoon with tenderness all the days of my life. I walked to the “Jacaranda” Hospital, near Cronulla. (We could not afford a car). Here I was shown an olive-skinned newly born child lying in a butter box. There had been many births that day, and they had apparently run out of cots. A fuzz of dark hair covered her head. Her blue eyes rolled in completely opposite directions, chameleon-like, as she tried to focus on what was possibly my vague shadowy shape bending over her, or perhaps sought to identify the direction that my voice was coming from. Her little soft red mouth seemed to pull itself into a kind of smile. She was bruised right across the face, from the forehead, across the eye and nose, diagonally to her chin, for it had been a difficult forceps delivery. That moment, a wave of tremendous love swept over me. Irene and I were both almost thirty years old. We had thought that we should never have children. Yet here was my beautiful daughter smiling up at me.

I went to say “Hallo” to Irene, but she was stretched out exhausted, and very weak. She had been in labour for four days, and the birth itself had been extremely difficult. I think she hardly realised I was there.

That evening I went round to the house of a friend who insisted on playing Richard Tauber records all night. Although Tauber was a great favourite of mine, I simply sat there in a kind of daze. The only thought that kept repeating itself in my mind over and over again was, “I am a father. I am a father.” The wonder of it dazzled me. The responsibility of it overwhelmed me.

Later, I took to washing out the nappies, as they did not do this at the “Jacaranda” Private Hospital. But my good intentions were undermined when I put tapioca in the sink in mistake for washing powder. The result was a bit of a mess. Subsequently, when she returned from hospital, Irene took over this chore.

Some months prior to Patricia’s birth, having paid off the garage and once again obtained a clear title to our land, we approached the St George Building Society for a loan. This was quite a small concern then, with headquarters in Forest Road, Hurstville. We had no money, so we were obliged to pick a plan showing a two-bedroomed house of minimum size – in fact, the overall area was six and a half squares, which most people today would consider laughable. However, we borrowed sixteen hundred pounds on the grounds that half a loaf is better than no bread. Our repayments were two pounds ten a week, and my wages at that time seven pounds.

The problem now was to get a builder. Irene had transferred from Coles’ in Sydney to a milk bar in Forest Road, Hurstville, so we were able to go into work together and come home together, the Council Chambers being just along the road. This enabled us to have more time to look for a builder. However builders were not interested. Most of them had work for the next eighteen months or two years, and simply could not fit anything in prior to that time. We went to builders all over Caringbah and Cronulla without success. I did not want to try to build it myself, fearing that I might not get a good result because of my lack of expertise. I feared also that it would simply take too long and costs would smother me. In the event, we ran a builder down who lived no further than the adjoining street. He agreed to build our small brick and fibro castle after nine months had elapsed. We accepted his offer with alacrity, knowing it was the best we were likely to get, and the house was eventually built just in time to welcome Patricia into the world. How proud I was, that although the place was small, it was entirely adequate at that time for Irene and me and that my daughter had a separate room and lovely surroundings to take her first faltering steps in Australia.

I was not a particularly devout Christian, nor was Irene a devout Jew. We decided that Gentiles have an easier time in this world than Jews, but that it is desirable for children to be taught the moral precepts common to both religions. We therefore had Patricia christened in the Methodist Church just down the road, on the grounds that this was the closest church in the vicinity, my own Church of England being a couple of miles or so away at Cronulla. Patricia’s godmother, our good friend Beryl, was a practising but very tolerant Catholic. Thus were the outward formalities of society completed.

CH10 Pt1 The best garage in Caringbah.

Irene therefore began to look around for a place for us to live whilst I went to work during the week, earning enough money for us to hang on by the skin of our teeth, and at least not need to touch our capital for everyday living expenses. Renting a room we decided was out of the question. First, rents were exorbitant. In the second place, we disliked the idea of paying for somebody else’s property. There had been enough of that in the old country. We weren’t about to start bad habits in the new one. Eventually Irene came across a temporary dwelling and laundry on the outskirts of Yagoona, whose owner was selling out for just over four hundred pounds. She made inquiries at the Bankstown Council and was told that there were no problems. We paid a deposit of forty-five pounds from our capital – equivalent to nearly two months’ wages at that time. We had just over two hundred pounds saved up. We hoped to raise the rest by loan from the Rural Bank.

Too late we learned that the land was to be declared unfit for building as it was subject to minor flooding. The solicitor, one of the tribe who inhabited small offices in large buildings in Hunter Street, told us that the legal position was that the land was still fit for building at the time of signing the contract. Therefore we stood little chance of regaining our money. Indeed, the vendor might force us to proceed with the purchase. At this stage it dawned on us that he was acting for both parties, a fact to which, in our ignorance, we had not paid any attention. Subsequent advice from other quarters revealed that we had been misled, deliberately, it seemed, and we were eventually able to recover fifteen pounds. However, the outlook seemed very black at the time. Moreover our money was in limbo for a considerable period when we had most need of it. Although it seemed a paltry amount today, it meant that when we did eventually buy land and build, we had to settle for something less than might otherwise have been possible. To this extent our unpleasant experience possibly affected our entire future life in Australia. For had we been able to build a better house at the beginning in what was to become one of Sydney’s go-ahead areas, I may have resisted the temptation, five years later, to leave the big city and go to the bush. In the event, the lesson we learnt was not to pay out a penny before making the best possible inquiries about land. One should never sign a contract without being advised by one’s own solicitor. Any deposit should always be conditional on there being no unforeseen difficulties that might vitiate the agreement. The world is full of villains without conscience seeking to separate suckers from their hard earned cash. Caveat Emptor! Trust nobody!

The strike was wreaking havoc with the economy and eventually Ben Chifley, the Prime Minister, decided to put troops into the mines to save the jobs of the majority and prevent social chaos. It was the correct thing to do, although it earned Chifley, a great Labour leader, the enmity of many in his own party. Power was always dicey in Sydney at that time. The Snowy scheme had not yet been constructed, and everything seemed to depend on the continuing working of the Bunnerong generating station. But with the mines producing again, trains were restored, and we could once again cook with electricity. Suddenly the strike was over. And as if to herald better times, even the rain began to abate.

One evening, when I came home from the city, Irene greeted me with the news that she had found a reasonably priced block of land in Caringbah, near Dolan’s Bay, a couple of stops along the railway line from Cronulla. We went out to have a look at it the following weekend. It was in Want Street, opposite the junction of Cook Street, at the foot of the hill. It was fifty feet wide by about a hundred and sixty deep, and the price was sixty pounds. Irene said she could just imagine our house there. Trees were everywhere, the road was gravel, there was no sewer. Although we were only three of four minutes’ walk from the main road, and the bus, we seemed to be in the heart of the bush. Kookaburras perched on age-old gum trees cackled joyfully morning and evening. We thought it was beautiful. We engaged a solicitor, had all inquiries made and bought the block.

Our next door neighbour, whose name was Jack, was the sanitary carter. He lived in a rather jerry built house with his wife, mother-in-law and several children. He parked the sanitary cart outside at weekends in order to get an early start Monday mornings. Fortunately he always emptied it of its contents Friday afternoons. From Jack we hired a tent for ten shillings a week, pitched it on our block and moved in. Thus we kept our promise to Oll to leave his house as quickly as possible.

We had no toilet, so for the time being we used Jack’s. His professional activities enabled him to supply an extra sanitary service at no cost. We bought cups and saucers, plates, knives, forks and spoons. One Saturday morning, walking back from Caringbah, I saw the bus stop at Cook Street, and Irene, dressed in a brown suit inherited from her mother, step off. She had been down town before me, and held clutched to her a collapsible tin box containing double primus stoves. She made a bee-line down Cook Street in the direction of our tent, and I had to call before she saw me. 

She had picked up the cooker at a bargain price. Now we should be able to enjoy hot meals, always provided we could get the primus going.

Jack had lent us a couple of single beds, which just fitted into the tent, so we didn’t have to sleep on the ground. This was just as well, because shortly the rain began again. Only then did we discover that our block was a virtual continuation of Cook Street, and a main drain for all the storm water coming therefrom. 

For a couple of weeks we were ankle deep in water every time it rained. In addition, the tent had a number of holes, and the water dripped in everywhere. Getting up and dressing every morning without getting one’s feet wet became something of a work of art. The inside of the tent became a haven for tarantulas escaping from the rain. We had never seen these huge, ugly spiders in England. Here we quickly got used to them, but Irene never did feel completely at ease when one of them parked itself on the tent canvass just above her bed. The other spiders were the red backs in the dunny. There were endless colonies of them. They seemed to be unaggressive, and I adopted a policy of live and let live. Many a time, in the dunny I have had eyeball-to-eyeball confrontations with red back spiders at the end of which we have both departed in peace. Only when the spider insisted on taking charge of a section of the dunny essential to my own purposes was I obliged to pick up one of the many stones lying around and strike it sharply on its red spot.

When the rain eventually stopped, I went up the street, borrowed a wheelbarrow from a neighbour, and made two hundred trips to the bush immediately behind our block. I pushed two hundred barrow loads of soil from the bush and dumped them on the footpath and the front of our block. I had to go about three or four hundred yards into the bush and the road back was all uphill, so I slaved for a long time over that job. Then I went even further down and dug huge lumps of sandstone out of the soil. These I either wheelbarrowed or bullocked up to the front of the block to make my own kerb and gutter which would never be washed away in a hundred years. I succeeded in diverting the flow of water from Cook Street at right angles along Want Street into a small creek a couple of hundred yards further along. Never again was our block subject to flooding with storm water.

We now proposed to build a temporary dwelling. We drew up plans and specifications for a garage and our own dunny, and had them passed by Sutherland Shire Council. We would be permitted to live in the garage for a limited period while we built our house. We were not permitted to live in a tent, but nobody knew that we were doing so, and before they did, we would have the garage erected.

Thus we laid our plans, but now struck a snag. We had run out of money and needed to borrow one hundred pounds to obtain materials for our temporary dwelling. We would also have to pay for a minimal amount of labour, for we were totally inexpert. With a block of land rapidly appreciating in value, there should have been no problem. But we had been in Australia only a few weeks, and we knew nobody who would vouch for our bona fides. Oll gave us a character reference, but he had only been acquainted with us for a short time. We had no money, virtually no belongings, no bank references, we were new arrivals, foreigners, in fact. Today, when banks throw money at you and want everybody to be their customer, the conservatism of lending institutions in those days is perhaps difficult to understand. I could not do very much about this matter, because I had to work to keep our heads above water. Irene went to the Rural Bank in Martin Place, where she made the acquaintance of a man, who was one of their small loans officers. Over a period of three months she went to see him almost every day. Eventually he lent us a hundred pounds. I am quite sure that he did it to get rid of her, because it had become obvious that otherwise she would waste his time every day for the rest of his life.

Irene and I now made the acquaintance of a friend of our neighbour the sanitary carter, who came over from Wentworthville most weekends to visit. This man was a bush carpenter. He agreed to lay out the foundations of the garage and a dunny for us, to cut and erect a frame, and organise the purchase of materials for roof and cladding. However, Irene and I would have to organise the foundations.

We borrowed a hand concrete mixer from a sympathetic neighbour; ordered sand, a couple of trailer loads of metal, and several bags of cement; and stored everything underneath the sanitary carter’s house. Our first effort at putting down concrete was the floor of our dunny, the most essential of all buildings. Irene turned the hand mixer while I shovelled sand, metal and cement into it in the proper proportions and added the appropriate amount of water. A few weeks earlier I had not even known what concrete consisted of, so it is easy to imagine with what care we poured the dunny floor, smoothed it over with a wood float, and sprinkled in just a dash of cement to give it a final finish. I do believe that that dunny floor was the most perfect piece of concrete I ever put down. It was a beautiful piece of construction, and the only pity was that it was to be forever hidden from public gaze. However, I gained considerable satisfaction afterwards in private contemplation of my handiwork.

We now had to put down the foundations of the garage, and as our land sloped to the rear, these foundations were a major work, requiring the formwork to be straight and robust. Also we had to meet a deadline, as the builder was to arrive at a set time one weekend to erect the frame. Irene and I worked all day Saturday and Sunday, then continued during the week after I came home from work, sometimes at night by lamplight, and on occasions in drizzling rain, covering the form work with old tarpaulin and newspapers to allow the concrete to dry and set. With this job finished, I began to put together the frame. Our builder arrived in the middle of this, which was just as well as I had not had any experience in squaring up, and although I knew what was required in theory, practice was lacking. Soon our builder was putting in the second hand corrugated iron on the roof, and Irene and I were putting up the weatherboards, which were to constitute the cladding. I gave the garage a coat of red lead, an undercoat, and two good coats of dark green, glossy “Dulux”. There was red piping at the corners and around the louvre windows. I painted the roof silver, and it gleamed like a mirror in the summer sun. We filled up the interior of the foundations with earth and ash, put hardwood joists across, standing on bricks, then nailed fence palings for a floor. We covered the whole with lino. One end of the garage was the wash-house-cum-laundry-cum kitchen-cum-living-room. This section had a concrete floor, two concrete tubs under a water tap, and a vitreous clay pipe poking through the concrete foundation at the back allowing sullage to spill out direct on the ground. How the building inspector ever passed it I do not know. He must have felt sympathetic towards us because we were obviously trying so hard. Such were the times.

We were the cynosure of all eyes in Cook and Want Streets. The centre of attention. I think all the neighbours were interested to see how the new immigrants were getting on. Whatever else they thought of us, Irene and I certainly showed them how to work, for in that first twelve months we never stopped once.

Thus, after only four months in Australia, we moved into our own place. It was an unlined garage on what was then the far southern perimeter of Sydney. It was unsewered and stood in almost virgin bush. Goodness knows it was a modest enough achievement. But we had saved every penny we could to make this small dream come true. Not knowing the first thing about building, we had put it together ourselves with minimal help. I cannot easily express the tremendous, absurd, bursting sense of pride that Irene and I took in owning that little garage in Caringbah. No other home we ever owned in the future meant quite so much to us as that dark green timber garage with the silver corrugated iron roof.

Ch9 Pt4 Arrival in Australia

How can one give one’s first impressions of Australia at a distance of thirty-two years? I kept no notes of our first Australian landfall. I recollect that as we got off the ship at Fremantle for a stop of just a few hours, I was a little dismayed at a lean, lantern-jawed, “typical Aussie” who was trying to sell us obviously worthless and meretricious souvenirs. I was disappointed to have my intelligence insulted by a man who would shortly be a compatriot. But when we got into a bus for the trip to Perth, I was enchanted by the small, neat, fibro and weatherboard cottages, whose corrugated iron roofs were painted prettily in reds and greens. I swore there and then that I would own one just like them, no matter what it cost me in personal effort. 

In Perth itself, I remember the beauty of the Swan River, the cleanliness and openness of the city, the lack of high rise building (at that time!). I thought that the streets were wide and gave one a sense of freedom. I liked the cool, easy, spacious layout of the big department stores. I found the easy, unselfconscious egalitarianism of everybody positively marvellous after that cramped English society which I had left – where everybody classified everybody else in the social scale as soon as he opened his mouth. The nasalness of Australian speech hit my ear with sledgehammer effect as if I was almost listening to a new language. But I did not find this intonation at all unpleasing. Most of the people I met seemed to have a clear idea of what they wanted to communicate, and in these circumstances the accent was of minor importance. Yes, I positively liked the Australian accent, and greatly preferred it to both glottal-stop Cockney and to nauseating plum-in-the-mouth Oxford English.

I remember that the trip across the Great Australian Bight was extremely chilly – those cold winds must have been blowing up from the South Pole. Even so, we had frequent clouds of flying fish fluttering up out of the water for a few moments ahead of the ship, then dropping back again. 

We by-passed Adelaide, but had a forty-eight hour stop in Melbourne. There we looked up Max and his wife Alice. Max was the son of a friend of Irene’s mother with whom both Irene and I had a passing acquaintance, since his mother lived close by Berta, in London. Max had escaped the Holocaust by moving to Australia just prior to the war, studying at technical college to learn English and become an electrician. He extended us his kind hospitality, and Irene and I explored Melbourne a little, moving around Flinders Street, Collins Street and St. Kilda, and having a look at such differing places as Port Phillip Bay and the Zoo.

Shortly afterwards the Ranchi was thrusting its way powerfully northwards in very fine weather, with the east coast of Australia, green and beautiful, about half a mile across the blue water on the portside bow. We reduced speed as we approached Sydney, and the evening before berthing went to sleep with feelings of intense excitement. The following morning, we were up on deck immediately after breakfast to see the entrance into Sydney Harbour. 

We came through the Heads with no indication of what lay before us. But suddenly there was the huge harbour with large rocky areas of bushland rapidly disappearing into urban development. Just ahead there swung into view the immense “coat hanger” of the Harbour Bridge. Having seen photographs of it many times, it was so familiar yet somehow more imposing and breathtaking than we had ever dreamt. I knew the moment I saw this that I was home. I knew somehow in the marrow of my bones, that although I might regret England and Europe many times in my life, Australia was the true place where I really ought to be.

We spent a while in the gloom of the Customs sheds at Woolloomooloo wharf, and it was from this large and disorganised checkpoint that Oll and Alma rescued us. He was tall, bespectacled, fortyish, bald and nasal. She was shorter, rounder, but equally nasal and one hundred per cent Australian. They were both extremely friendly, kind and hospitable. They took us by taxi to Wynyard Station, where we boarded a train for their home in Campsie. Oll had decorated the sunroom in bright colours, and a bed, cupboard and chairs were set aside for us. Everything possible was done to make us feel welcome and at ease. We had our meals with Oll’s family, and we were shown typical Australian hospitality. They were a great family, and my gratitude to them and admiration for them has always been unbounded.

For a week we took it easy, looking around, trying to find our bearings and somehow adjust to this new atmosphere. After the first forty-eight hours of fine weather it began to rain. Some people said it was the worst rain in living memory. I wanted to get a job, but I wanted it to be the right job. The trouble was, I had no idea what the right job for me would be. I was painfully conscious of my lack of any skill, apart from good literacy, which I suppose was something. I began to traipse the sodden streets of Sydney, looking for employment, and exactly at this time ugly rumblings started to come from the coalfields. Jobs seemed to be drying up. But I landed a stop-gap one with the Department of Local Government, at that time situated in an old colonial building on the corner of Bridge Street and Macquarie Street. Then the big coal strike of 1949 broke out. Industry was brought to a standstill, power was cut off almost continuously, people cooked on primus stoves and by the light of candles. Train services were cut back to an absolute minimum during the week and virtually ceased altogether at weekends. All this was happening in a country where labour was short and where there should have been a good living for everyone!

I found it all the more unbelievable because economic conditions were so far ahead of what we had known in England. Unrationed meat literally festooned the shop windows. You could buy as much chocolate as you liked. The greengrocer shops displayed unlimited tropical fruits – bananas in huge bunches, as well as such esoteric things as custard apples and paw paws, things which we had never known in England in the years of peace, let alone during and just after the war. Clothes, too, were in unlimited supply, of good quality and material, and not subject to rationing. The country was rich. What was everybody complaining about?

With the real commencement of the coal strike, factories began to close down all over Sydney for want of power. All of a sudden, thousands were out of work, and I was grateful for my local government job. It did not pay a princely wage by any means, but at least I had a small income to keep the wolf from the door and allow us to live. At this stage many of the Ranchi passengers with whom we were still in touch found themselves stranded. Some lost heart and booked return passages to England, feeling homesick and dispirited by the totally unexpected and quite catastrophic unemployment resulting from the coalminers’ strike.

We had given Oll our word that we would leave his house within a week of arrival. It was a promise that we were unable to keep because of the restrictions imposed by the strike. On his side, he had agreed to accommodate us for six months when he had secured our nomination. It was a contract that we certainly did not want to hold him to. 

But with transport so limited, particularly at weekends when I was free, it became extremely difficult to search for alternative accommodation.

CH9 Pt3 Ceylon / Sri Lanka

Finally, at midnight, like a cork out of a bottle, we left the Gulf and the ship thrust itself into the Red Sea. The next day it was glistening water on either side, sweltering heat, porpoises and clouds of flying fish emerging with a whirring sound from the water, flitting through the air for several yards before falling back into the sea.

We stopped briefly at Aden: an incredibly rocky and barren place, rising straight out of the sea. From the ship we saw several white houses, a clock tower and various wireless aerials rising from the summits of rugged slopes. The vendors in their cockleshell boats were similar to those at Port Said except that they seemed to be mostly African or Indian. There were none of the half-Europeanised Arabs such as one found in Egypt. African divers swam about the ship as we looked over the rail.

“Throw! Throw! Hi! You got sixpence? Throw!”

Thus far east then, has the English language penetrated, and thus far the tentacles of the old British Empire, now sadly disintegrating. The divers diligently avoid a police launch. The crew, smartly dressed with black puttees and black fezzes, stands stiffly to attention. I notice particularly the flag fluttering at the launch’s stern. It is a British ensign with two large-sailed Arab dhows enclosed by a circle in the bottom right hand corner. How much longer will that relic of Britain last?

As we crossed the Indian Ocean, a heavy swell developed, but the stabilisers kept the ship on a reasonably even keel. It was very warm, and at night Irene and I slept on the top deck, as did at least half of the passengers on board. We were all getting to know each other fairly well, and scraps of gossip began to be bandied about the ship. Mr “A” has had a serious tiff with his wife over her supposed infatuation for Mr “B”.  Mr ”C”, a cultured man, though of a powerful physique, has quarrelled with two other passengers over the division of food at table, and has relieved himself of some most uncultured language in the process. Three young New Australians have been brought into the world since we left Tilbury, notwithstanding the fact that women more than three months pregnant were not supposed to travel. (I always suspected that our own medical examination was more than somewhat cursory). Old Tom, who has been to Aussie before, relates how, in the outback in the twenties, he was nearly speared by Aborigines, only escaping because he left a bundle of clothes in his tent wrapped up in blankets, but actually slept in the bush. Mr “X” who is a former soldier is going to drive bulldozers in open-cut coalmines, and is always making plans to bring out his wife and children whom he misses deeply. However this does not prevent him having a torrid shipboard romance with Mrs “Y” who is on her way to rejoin her husband. Mr “W”, who was stationed during the war in Sydney wonders how many of his old girl friends will be married and whether Australian beer is still as strong as it used to be. He has it in mind to marry one particular girl, and the question of employment is uppermost in his mind. That subject probably worries us all, but there is little point in considering it until we reach Australia. It is then that the “New Life” will begin.

It was about half past ten one night a week later that we began to see lights ahead – almost the first sign of land since Aden. Rapidly they became brighter and more numerous until we were passing along a channel marked with buoys which gleamed wanly, like oil lamps in the darkness. Within a short while we were well within view of the intermittent, dazzling beam of a lighthouse. Then suddenly, on the port side, a cluster of red and white lights surged towards us out of the darkness and a small white-painted launch came alongside. A rope ladder had been slung down from the Ranchi with two dangling thongs protruding. A man in a white shirt, shorts and raincoat stepped on to the side of the launch, grasped the thongs and swung himself towards the rope ladder, up which he proceeded to scramble. The pilot was coming aboard to take us into Colombo Harbour.

In the morning, we found ourselves anchored within the harbour in the company of many other vessels. The sea on the other side of the harbour wall heaved and swelled and periodically smashed itself into sparkling white smithereens against the unyielding stone. A small launch took us ashore for a rupee apiece and put us off at the main jetty. Beyond, in one of the major streets of Colombo, rickshaw coolies in loincloths and makeshift turbans, or patched shorts and battered hats pestered us to hire them.

“Take you to native quarter, bazaar, Cinnamon Gardens, sair. One rupee. Very cheap.”

“Madam! Take you for tour of Colombo. All the sights. Very cheap.”

So English is the lingua franca even in Ceylon. Australia is the next stop. Then comes New Zealand, and the next major country round the world is North America. English has indeed encircled the globe. However, the rickshaw pullers clearly do not understand the word “No”. If you tell them you don’t require their services, they grin villainously and say: “All right, sair. By and by.” They then continue to follow you, keeping up a running commentary on the attractions of Colombo.

Irene and I strolled along, following the little single decker trams until we came to a market quarter. In many ways, this resembled the Sukh in Cairo. Certainly if you closed your eyes and inhaled the awful odour of human and animal smells, cooking, and rotten fruit, you could easily imagine yourself back in Egypt. Yet the people were entirely different. There was almost no European or African racial admixture. The people were either dark brown or golden brown skinned, with straight black hair often done up in the case of the men in a bun at the back of the neck, although many had western-style haircuts. The men generally wore an ankle-length skirt of patterned material with either a shirt tucked in, or a small jacket. The women wore a similar skirt and a small bodice-cum-brassière. Most of the women seemed to take very definite pride in their appearance, and a few were strikingly beautiful. Silken saris were also frequent, and fitted most becomingly into the general picture. Some of the women were dressed western-fashion, and among the businessmen of the community one saw white ducks and white topees.

The traffic of Colombo consisted of the small, rattling, single decker municipal tramways, lean rickshaw men, trotting barefoot, with bicycle bells screwed to the shafts of their conveyances, modern motor cars, carts with curved, plaited straw awnings, drawn by incredibly small bullocks, and red double-decker buses which, incidentally, were run by a private company, and imported from England. Irene and I boarded one of these buses after seeing the native market, and travelled to Mount Lavinia, on the coast about half an hour’s ride distant.

At the time of our visit, this country had recently become independent from British rule, but was still known as Ceylon. Since 1972, it is now the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. 

We got chatting on the bus to a smartly dressed native of Ceylon. He was employed by the bus company, and spoke perfect English.

Education was free and compulsory in Ceylon, he told us. Children with the necessary ability could go to University without payment. He himself had got his school certificate, which meant that he had roughly the same education as I. My mind slipped back to a few tattered, deformed, dirty child beggars I had seen only a short while ago in the native quarter, who I am sure had never seen the inside of a school in their lives, but I thought it might be bad manners to question our friend about this on such short acquaintance. Nevertheless, our meeting strengthened my impression that Ceylon was a civilised country, which was pressing ahead. Kandy, said our friend, was the best place on the island for Europeans – elevated, picturesque and cool. It was a pity that we were stopping only a few hours. We ought to have seen Kandy.

He was evidently very enthusiastic about his country. Almost everyone on the island understood some English, although the mother tongue of most was Sinhalese. Schooling in English had fallen behind but they would pick that up – they must, for all the best technical books were written in English. Rain had drenched Ceylon for the previous three days, but we had arrived at an opportune time when the sun was shining.

Our bus ran roughly parallel with the sea on the way to Mount Lavinia, and we passed some lovely bungalows with shady verandas and orange tiled roofs, clearly the properties of wealthier inhabitants. Inevitably there was also the odd super-modern cinema with its captions in English and Sinhalese, the latter so different from the dots and squiggles of Arabic, but still looking like some weird and heavily written shorthand.

Alighting at the bus terminus, we walked along a road of orange-roofed single storey homes, past a school where dark-eyed, dark-haired boys and girls sat chanting their lessons. As we topped a green rise, our view looked down on the yellow sand and gentle surf of Mount Lavinia Beach. The pure blue sea heaved itself into long, glittering rolls sweeping shorewards and finally spreading themselves in a creamy, hissing confusion on the golden sand. And all along the beach were palm trees. But such palm trees! Incredibly tall, incredibly slender, with a green, coarse tuft of leaves at the top, and a cluster of nestling green coconuts.

After filling our eyes with the beauty of this scene, Irene and I went up to the Mount Lavinia Hotel, an imposing building at the end of the beach. We wondered whether the ten rupees, which were all the money we had brought ashore, would be enough to buy us a drink. We sat in the spacious, luxuriously furnished lounge and gazed at the dazzlingly bright beach with its background of palm trees. A waiter came to us, took our orders, and returned with two very large glasses of iced lemonade. Sixty cents for the two of us! I gave him a fair sized tip in my excess of relief.

We bought a few souvenirs for the children of Oll and Alma P in Australia, all at a very reasonable price. Then we caught a bus back to the centre of Colombo, looking down from our top front seat at the strange shops and bistros, the orange tiled houses, the cars, the rickshaws, and the policemen. The Ceylon police struck us as being fine, upstanding fellows. They were tall, well-built, dark skinned men, dressed in slouch hats, khaki jackets and shorts and black puttees. When directing the traffic, they stood on little raised pedestals in the centre of the street, with a small umbrella like arrangement suspended over them to keep off the sun.

We returned to the Ranchi, having seen as much of Ceylon as we could during the few hours allotted to us, and having spent only ten rupees, much to Irene’s delight.

Well, a penny saved is a penny earned. And in just over a fortnight, we shall arrive in Sydney, where Oll and Alma will be waiting to meet us. Then we shall need every penny we can muster. During the whole of this trip, we have spent slightly less than five pounds. Other migrants have spent several hundreds. If they have money, then they may well have more money than sense. As for us, we don’t expect to get it easy. We are preparing for a struggle. England is a long way behind. But we don’t feel homesick.

We are going home – not leaving it.

Ch9 Pt2 On the Ranchi to Suez

In the past the authorities at Australia House, despite a pile of correspondence and repeated interviews, had always regretted that they could do little to help us. Now they made up for all their previous dilatoriness. Medical examinations and an interview with a selection committee followed each other rapidly. Finally, four months after Oll’s nomination, on my twenty-seventh birthday, we received a telegram from Australia House saying that we were due to sail within the week. 

Hurried goodbyes were said. It was impossible to visit all our friends and relatives. I resigned from the London County Council and got my severance pay. In twenty four hours, Irene sold all the furniture and other articles in our flat which we had saved every penny to buy. We made arrangements for a carrier to take charge of a large trunk containing all the personal belongings we wanted to take to Australia. Getting that trunk down four flights of narrow, twisting, old-fashioned stairs was a back-breaking job.

One late morning in May, we said goodbye to my father who had come to see us off at St. Pancras Station. We had taken leave of my own mother and Irene’s mother previously. Neither had wanted to come to the station for fear of becoming upset.

Even in 1949, if one went to Australia, one did not come back for a long time. The airfare was beyond the capacity of the ordinary working man, and the duration of the trip was such that most people could only afford to make it once or twice in a lifetime. In a way it was, to most English people, still a sort of transportation sentence.

We were never to see my mother again. We saw Irene’s mother once more. I was privileged, however, to enjoy four protracted visits with my father, some in Australia, some in England, before he eventually passed away.

Our train had been specially laid on for migrants bound for Australia, and we thus had a sense of common destiny, and of leaving the land of our birth quite possibly forever. We piled out of the train at Tilbury, on the Thames Estuary. The railway terminus was very close to the dockside. We had barely time to touch the English earth of the quay in valediction before we found ourselves walking up the gangplank and aboard the P and O liner Ranchi.

We were ten people to a large cabin, males in one cabin, females in another, of course. It was certainly not a luxury cruise, but compared with what we had known in the army, and considering the fact that the journey was free of cost, neither Irene nor I had any complaints at all. We thought that it was a very fair thing. When our bags were stacked, we went up on deck. My thoughts were mixed as I looked at the broadening estuary as it merged with the sea. We were taking our last look for many years – perhaps for always at the “Old Dart” – England – the country which had moulded me, the country which had confined me, my parents and my grandparents to the “lower orders” of society. Yet it was also the country that had offered Irene and her mother, and many other thousands of refugees, protection from a tyrannical Nazi regime. It was ironic that tolerant, kindly England, which had given life to so many of the downtrodden, had at the same time forced so many of her sons and daughters to seek a better life elsewhere. As I leant on the paint encrusted rail of the SS Ranchi, looking at the cranes on the murky wharf side, the waving groups of well-wishers, and the squat sheds became silhouetted against a lowering sky. I reflected how strange it was that a worldwide English speaking brotherhood had evolved, very largely as a result of an enormous emigration from this tiny island.

The voyage of the Ranchi was uneventful. From Tilbury docks we made a straight run for Port Said. One afternoon ten days later, we drew slowly towards the indistinct outlines of the ships and buildings of this gateway to the east. An hour later we were steaming slowly into the actual harbour.

As we drifted past the big ocean-going ships, the palm trees, the buildings with their signs in Arabic and English, a mosque-like edifice which appeared to be a hotel, and the yellow cement police station, we were surrounded by rowing boats filled with merchandise. Below us swam a brilliant array of multi-coloured handbags, pouffes and tapestry work. As the oarsmen of the little cockleshell bumboats pulled frantically to keep abreast of us, vendors stood upright and shouted hoarsely while waving brightly coloured wallets with extravagant designs of the Pyramids, camels and palm trees on them. Strings of beads, green unripe bananas, peanuts and wide brimmed straw hats were offered. As we slid to a standstill and ropes secured us to the wharf, strings with bags attached to them were thrown up to us with remarkable accuracy, money passed downwards, and Egyptian curios upwards.

A fussy little launch chugged around, flying a flag with a white crescent moon and a star on a green background. White uniformed policemen stood at its sides, with fezzes and rifles. Some of them finally climbed aboard our ship. “Watchmen” were there too, in European clothes, to see that fair trade was carried out between the passengers and the Arab salesmen below.

Egypt is a country of mixed races – African, Arab, Greek, Italian and Turk mingle here. Some of the vendors and policemen have white skins, others dark, and there are all manner of shades in between. All this I have seen before, but I got the same thrill as when I first steamed into Port Said with a boatload of troops one black and silent night in 1946. As for Irene, she was as excited as I had ever seen her, dashing here and there and talking to everybody in Arabic.

I noticed particularly that the vendors took great care to exorcise the more colourful flights of English from their conversation. No doubt one converses with tourists, (which they undoubtedly thought we were), on a slightly higher plane than with the rough and licentious soldiery. However, they exercised their usual technique of asking three times as much for an article as it was really worth, and then allowing themselves to be beaten down. Irene bought a wide brimmed straw hat for four shillings when twelve and sixpence had been originally asked. I got a piece of tapestry work depicting mosques, minarets, camels and Bedouin for Alma P, wife of our sponsor in Australia. The price asked originally was three pounds fifteen shillings, but we got it for one pound five shillings and six cigarettes. We had still probably been swindled. But bargaining is fun.

Night falls at last. The dirty waters of Port Said twinkle and shimmer in the glare of the wharfside lights, just as they must have done every night since my last visit there; just as they would do for interminable nights into the future. Astern of us, dancing on the skyline, are the winking lights of the city’s night spots. A few vendors still row around hopefully below us, with lanterns illuminating the wares in their little boats.  

The big, black water barges pull away, and the floating pipe, which has been pouring oil into the Ranchi from ashore, is withdrawn. We are due to sail at half past ten and for the greater part of the night we shall be creeping through the Suez Canal.

At exactly ten thirty a police launch comes alongside, and a Suez Canal official climbs aboard. His business does not occupy him very long. He leaves. The gangplank is hauled up by a team of Indian seamen, and we begin to crawl through the Suez Canal. The sandy banks are walled up to a few feet above water level so that they will not cave in. The scenery is mostly barren – sand – the odd clump of palm trees – occasional bare military encampments. At night, every ship passing along the Canal switches on a powerful searchlight in its bows, and the murky waters, with their navigable depths marked by buoys, are lit up for many yards ahead. During the day the waters of the Suez Canal are green, and seem faintly stagnant. Often clouds of mud appear in the ship’s wake as it slides cautiously along. According to the charts, the average depth of the Canal is between 35 and 40 feet.

The Suez Canal was opened in 1869, and is 87½ miles in length. Of this 66½ miles is actual canal, and the rest of the distance is made up of channels dredged through Lake Timsah, and the Great and Little Bitter Lakes. Traffic is controlled by thirteen signal stations alongside the Canal. We passed through the greater part of the Canal at night, but in the morning crept slowly through Lake Timsah and were able to see the township of Ismailia, looking strikingly green and prosperous against the barren yellow landscape. This town was to be badly shelled in one of the later Israeli-Egyptian conflicts. We saw also big, dirty dredges, with their equally dirty crews. Approaching Suez we passed a massive war memorial erected on a hillock of sandstone, and bearing the legend: “Défense de Suez 1914-1918.”

It was on the day that we passed through the Suez Canal that our stewards appeared in all-white uniforms. The head steward, with his black and gold epaulettes, looked like some South American admiral.

In the late afternoon we came to the end of the monotonous Suez Canal. During the last stretch, between the Bitter Lakes and the Gulf, we came across bomb craters by the side of the Canal, and the twisted and torn hulls of ships which had been sunk during the Second World War and hoisted out of the water on to the sandy bank. Suddenly, there was Suez on our right: white houses, palm trees, macadamised roads, square harbour, and an Egyptian ship lying at anchor and letting off vociferous steam. A busy tug approached, our pilot climbed down the side of our ship and stepped into it. The tug veered away, and suddenly the Ranchi’s engines thundered and we started to put on speed.

That night we steamed at full tilt down the Gulf of Suez, while behind us the waters tumbled and foamed madly. Earlier in the evening, while the light lasted, barren rocky desert had been visible on either side. Now it was pitch black and we were really pounding along. A following wind, created the effect on deck that the air was still, and it was very warm. The smoke from the Ranchi’s huge black funnel poured straight up into the sky, and the night was glorious with stars.

Ch9 Pt1 Sponsorship to Australia

“They’ve published it,” said Irena. 

She held out a short typewritten note to me.

Dear Sir,

Your letter to The Editor was published in ‘The Sun’ today, and we have pleasure in enclosing a cutting.

                “Yours faithfully ………..”

It was signed by The Associate Editor of the Sydney Sun.

“Well,” I said, “let’s hope it will help us to get on our way to Australia.”

Irene and I were in the small upstairs flat near Notting Hill Gate that we had been lucky enough to rent after our marriage early in 1947. The letter, which had just reached us after journeying half way across the world from Sydney to London, was the result of our latest effort to obtain a sponsor to bring us to Australia.

We had decided many months ago that our future lay in Australia. The idea of migrating had been at the back of my own mind for a long time. After the war it was resurrected by the publicity given to the country by its “Food Parcels for Britain” scheme. The Australian Government also initiated a drive for British migrants. The problem was to obtain berths on the limited number of overcrowded ships.

During the war in Britain we had seen quite a few Australian airmen who were regularly engaged on bombing raids over Germany. Also one saw occasional Australian sailors. I do not recall ever meeting any Australian soldiers. After their stint in the Middle East the Australian Prime Minister of the time, John Curtin, had withdrawn them to Australia to fight the Japanese in New Guinea. This was after a ferocious but well-concealed row with the British Prime Minister Churchill who thought that Australia was expendable, and could be liberated from the Japanese after the defeat of the Germans in Europe and North Africa.

Irene had known a few Australians in Cairo. They were rather notorious for misbehaving themselves and taking bars and bistros apart. She said that basically they were lonely and frustrated, and weren’t really bad at heart.

The Agents General for all the Australian States were in the west end of London, and most of them in The Strand. Thus I could walk across Waterloo Bridge from the Headquarters of the London County Council where I worked and read the Australian newspapers, which were always on display during the lunch hour. I did this for two years so that when the time eventually came for us to go, I felt that I knew as much about modern Australia as I did about England, and when we got there, I would not be a stranger. I also read as many books on Australia and Australian history as I could find in the library with the object of making mental preparation for the future.

Irene was not happy with the London climate after the openness and sunshine of the Middle East. The dirty streets oppressed her and the cold winter chilled her to the bone. Moreover, she viewed with alarm the renewed activities of Sir Oswald Mosley’s fascist hooligans, and wondered how many of her friends who thought she was German would still have been her friends had they known that she was not only German but Jewish. Remember that the clap-trap mouthed by these young fascist thugs who openly began to hold meetings in London was identical with Hitler’s ravings which had encompassed the death of most of Irene’s family little more than three years previously.

Sir Oswald Mosley, by the way, who addressed fascist meetings in the east end, dressed in jackboots and black riding breeches and shirt in pre-war years, had been interned during the war. It was always a mystery to me why the authorities did not shoot him. Instead, with that tolerance for which Britain was at one time famous, they let him loose again.

If these things made Irene begin to doubt the wisdom of continuing to reside in London, I saw the city as a huge stone and concrete prison. A kind of claustrophobia gripped me when I walked its dusty streets, devoid for miles of a single blade of healthy green grass.

The general economic situation at this time was also most depressing, and a sense of urgency began to prick at my mind. I was in my late twenties, beginning to look towards thirty, and I had achieved nothing, neither did I seem to have any prospects. Apart from these things, however, there was another even more important matter thrusting me towards pulling up stakes and starting afresh. Quite simply, I had a quite dreadful personal vision of the England of the future.

I saw the rich getting continuously richer and the poor getting poorer. I saw a country with decreasing access to raw materials and a need to rely increasingly on superior technology to import food and resources necessary for its survival. But who could guarantee that with increasing competition, English manufacturing excellence would continue to be triumphant? Beyond this, the tight little island was grossly overcrowded. Furthermore, the nation had always been riven by class distinction and had never been a true meritocracy with equal opportunity. I saw this inequality and class distinction tearing England apart.

I did not foresee racial strife, because West Indian and Commonwealth immigration had barely begun. What I did see, however, was the spectre of nuclear war.

Already we had been almost brought into conflict with our recent allies, the Russians, over the Berlin question – where that city had been divided into four segments under British, American, French, and Russian control.

There was no way in the world that I would have joined up again to fight the Russians, and I am sure that a very large number of ex-servicemen at that time would have been of the same mind. But it was crystal clear that Russia was to become the next enemy. Nuclear bombs had won the war against Japan, with what terrible effect everybody knew. How long would it be until the Russians mastered the technology and laid waste to England?

These, then, were our reasons for wanting to get to Australia. We were held up because of lack of shipping following the war. The Jumbo aircraft of the modern era had not yet been developed, and all travel to the Antipodes was by ship. The Australian Government, in its drive for migrants, was offering free passage to ex-service personnel. But in order not to prejudice the housing situation in Australia, which was very restricted after five years of war in which little building had been permitted, it was necessary for each migrant who was not a skilled tradesman to have a sponsor. This individual would guarantee board and lodging for six months in Australia. Irene and I had no known relatives in Australia, neither had we discovered any friends who had contacts. Therefore, to accelerate processing of our immigration application we had to find a sponsor. This was the reason for my letter to the Sydney Sun. The letter read as follows:

           Waiting, Hoping ……..

                My wife and I first decided to migrate in 1946, and long before the present ‘free and assisted passages’ scheme came into operation, we were investigating at Australia House here in London, generally gleaning all the information about it that we could.

                There are now about 750,000 applicants for free and assisted passages registered with the authorities – and the list is getting longer every day. So it would seem that if government-assisted migrants eventually leave at the rate of 50,000 a year, a wait of “some years” for those without priority such as my wife and myself may mean 15 years!

                In desperation my wife and I booked private passages with the P and O Line. We should be broke when we reached Australia, but at least we should get there while still young enough to feel ourselves part of the country.

                We were told at the time that we would have to wait 18 months for a berth. Today, more than a year afterwards, we are informed that the shipping position has worsened, and that a wait of three years is envisaged before tourist berths become available.

                When such difficulties and delays are put in one’s way, one feels at times like accepting the fact that one is beaten. Only at times, however, because we intend to come to your country no matter how long it takes, and to settle there.

                I wonder, nevertheless, if there is any reader of your newspaper who would care to nominate a would-be immigrant and his wife — both ex-service, and not afraid to work and learn? 

                When we get settled in Australia, we know at least one family whom we in turn shall nominate.”

About a fortnight after receipt of notification of publication of this letter, we received a further letter from a Mr P, of Campsie, Sydney, New South Wales. Mr P informed us that his parents, to his everlasting regret, had christened him Oliver, and begged us to call him “Oll” for short. He also told us that he would nominate us for a free passage if we received no other offers of help. As it turned out, we did not receive any other offers. Thus, a few weeks later Oll, true to his word, and despite the fact that he and his wife had five children, and his own house was, if anything, overcrowded, had nominated us.

Oll was employed at the GPO in Martin Place (now Martin Plaza), in Sydney. He was an upright, honest, hard working Australian gentleman, who took a chance on a couple of complete strangers. I added him and his wife Alma to my very special list of people whom I regarded it as a privilege to have known.

Ch8 Pt4 Jugend Aliyah, the kibbutz, and the ATS.

Irena was transferred in 1939 to the newly founded settlement of Beit Ha’aravah – “The House in the Desert” — on the shores of the Dead Sea. The only other outpost of civilisation in this wilderness where the Bedouin roamed was the Potash Company premises. The sandy desert road from Jerusalem led past the Potash Company for two or three miles to the newly established kibbutz of Beit Ha’aravah. Here, in the hottest part of the Middle East, in a landscape of unbelievable aridity and unrelieved mournfulness, young men and young women were attempting to work valuable potash deposits and establish agriculture.

There were no longterm buildings at the kibbutz as there had been at Ashtoth Yakov. Here everybody lived in tents and permanent huts were a long way off, for each kibbutz was charged to become self-supporting in the quickest time possible. The interiors of the tents at Beit Ha’aravah were carefully looked after by the kibbutzniks and soon, with floorboards, home made cupboards, chests of drawers, all sorts of decorations, and partitions in the larger tents, they began to resemble real homes inside. To the outside eye they were nothing but huddles of canvass. 

Everything was done on a communal basis. The work was hard and mostly manual. There was little attention paid to the segregation of the sexes. Clean clothes were drawn from the communal laundry once a week. If they fitted, that was good. If they didn’t fit, one made do as best one could. The single object of the kibbutz at this time was survival. Night attacks by hostile Arabs were frequent. As little reliance could be placed on the Palestine Police, who would normally always have arrived too late to prevent a massacre, the “pioneers”, after a day of back-breaking toil, stood guard around their settlement. Irena took her turn on these guard duties, her rifle held tensely, her ears alert for the slightest sound, eyes strained for the tiniest movement. 

At first the kibbutz could not afford a watchtower and searchlight. Therefore exchanges with marauding Arabs often became a hit and miss explosion of rifles into the surrounding darkness. Despite the apparently disorganised nature of these encounters, the kibbutzniks sustained fatalities and casualties from wounds. This was the common pattern amongst kibbutzim all over Palestine at this time as rifles crackled at night and searchlights installed in the watchtowers quested around in the darkness for advancing Arabs.

Death at other times came unannounced, and with frightening suddenness. One day Irena was fishing in the River Jordan with a sixteen years old youth who was well known for his habit of whistling Strauss waltzes. They knew each other well, for they had escaped from Germany on the same refugee train. Suddenly a shot was fired from the bushes on the opposite bank and Irena’s companion fell dead. Terrified, she ran all the way back to the kibbutz, zigzagging in case the unseen assassin should draw a bead on her.

At night the closest guard of all was maintained around the crèche where the babies slept. For these Israeli-born “Sabras” were the country’s most valuable immigrants. Palestine – or preferably Israel – would be their country and their home. The ancient Hebrew speech, the language in which the Bible was written, would be their native tongue. Knowing nothing of anti-Semitism these young Jews – from the blue eyed blonds of northern Europe to the brown eyed olive skinned people of the Yemen – would face the world completely confident of themselves, unashamed of either their religion or their origin, bowing their heads to nobody.

On the outbreak of war in 1939, all the kibbutzim called for volunteers to join the army and fight against the Axis powers. The response was enthusiastic and many thousands of young men and women flocked to join the British forces. Irena was still too young to volunteer, and stayed at her kibbutz. However, towards the end of 1942 she could no longer put up with the long hours of labour, the continual denial of self, the lack of personal possessions extending even to the clothes which one wore and exchanged at the communal laundry every week. She had worked for no wages for over four years to advance agriculture in the Jewish homeland. Four years’ unpaid labour was enough! 

Here, in 1943, some months prior to her twenty first birthday, she volunteered for the British Army and became a member of the Auxiliary Territorial Service — ATS for short. In her army paybook her nationality was noted as “Russian”, the reasoning being that if by some mischance Hitler won the war, or Rommel with his Afrika Korps panzer divisions swept through from Egypt to Palestine, any person in the British Army shown as a German national would immediately be shot for treason. With most of her family exterminated in concentration camps by the Nazis, there was no way Irena felt she was committing treason. Rather she was pleased to be of help in paying back in their own coin those responsible for the cold blooded murder of countless innocents whose only crime was that their ancestors had professed the wrong religion.

She signed up at Sarafand Cantonnement, where she underwent a short period of training. She was then sent to Egypt, where she worked in a munitions dump at Tura, an Arab village just outside Cairo. Subsequently she served briefly in Italy, then in Egypt and Palestine as an interpreter.

During the war she had learnt that her mother Berta had escaped to England and remarried, a London furrier. In 1945 Irena was allowed to take 28 days’ leave in England on compassionate grounds, for she had not seen her mother for eight years. Berta’s new husband pulled as many strings as he could when Irena arrived, and she was demobilised in London, once again on compassionate grounds.

I met Irena at her bed-sitter in North West London about a year after this happened.