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.