Nostalgia on D-Day — 2001

Starting last Sunday I have been looking back, though I’ve not yet turned into a pillar of salt. As I mentioned on Monday I have found a back-up of quite a few of my old posts from Diary-X and elsewhere. This is one I haven’t seen for years!


Really old followers of my blogs – not all of them old in years though – will recall my discovery of textures and flashing bars, even if mine were of course in good taste. 😉

This one takes me back to Sutherland.


Nostalgia on D-Day
From my June 2001 diary

I have been thinking a lot about nostalgia lately. Today I propose to indulge in it; later I will subject nostalgia to critique. While nostalgia is a strong element in my own personality, and while I even derive pleasure from it, particularly when sharing it with that rarity, an appreciative audience, I am aware it has its dangers too, may personally be a weakness and in political terms a millstone.

But, to indulge.

Let me run back my decades for you, first in a public context, then when I have reached my target, some impressions of a more personal nature.

1991: Australia has 17,000,000 people (19,000,000 now). The Australian Republican Movement is launched, and a gunman shoots seven people at Strathfield Mall. I am working at the beginning of the year at Wessex College of English, later back at SBHS. I live in George Street Redfern with M, Philip and Michael, then in Little Everleigh Street Redfern with M.
1981: Australia has 15,000,000 people. Malcolm Fraser is Prime Minister. I have just moved back to Sydney (Glebe) and am working at Fort Street High. John Hawke (aged 16), Rob Duffy (aged 19), Lyneve Rappell (aged 17) and I start the poetry magazine Neos: it runs until 1985. I live alone.
1971: Australia has 13,000,000 people. The dreadful Billy McMahon is Prime Minister. We are heavily involved in the Vietnam War. I have just started working at Illawarra Grammar School, Wollongong and am living at Dapto, then West Wollongong. My parents have moved in with me. My friend S. first met me at this time. My God, we have known each other for 30 years!
1961: Australia has 10,600,000 people. Very few of them are Asian. Robert Menzies is still Prime Minister. Patrick White’s Riders in the Chariot wins the Miles Franklin Award; ABC-TVFour Corners begins with the terribly British- sounding Michael Charlton anchoring. Trams stop running in Sydney. I am in Arts II at Sydney University, 17-18 years old, and a member of the Evangelical Union. I am studying English (including Anglo-Saxon), Modern History (sitting next to the present Minister for Immigration) and Education I. I live in Oyster Bay Road, Como, with my parents. I sneak looks at the boy next door and hate myself for it.
1951: This is my target. Ah, the 1950s. No TV, baths heated by a wood-burning boiler. No refrigerator, though our neighbour had one. "The iceman cometh" weekly. Milk arrives in bulk and is ladled into whatever receptacle we take out to the milkman, who arrives by horse and cart, as does the baker.

The corner shop, Marshalls, sells biscuits in bulk; you have them put into a brown paper bag. There are two types of cheese, "block" cheddar and processed. There are basically three types of cold meat: ham, corned beef and devon. Chicken is eaten only at Christmas, and the rooster involved has its head cut off by my father and, horribly, runs round the yard without its head. His harem supplies our eggs. Our neighbour two houses away has a cow, which kept me supplied with milk during war-time shortages. My brother’s horse, Lassie, sometimes lives in the next-door yard, a Canadian war-bride whose war-traumatised alcoholic husband has just died. When Lassie is in our own yard, she has a habit of coming though the back door and sticking her head into the kitchen until my mother gives her sugar. Peter the Kelpie dog observes all this wisely. This is Sutherland, outer suburban Sydney, seventeen miles from the Harbour Bridge.


Royal National Park near Sutherland in the late 1920s or early 30s. It didn’t look all that different in the early 1950s — and my grandfather and some neighbours had cars like those!

My brother is 16 and is an apprentice carpenter. The local girls find him very attractive; at the moment he seems to prefer the horse. My sister is 11; I am 7-8. I remember us getting a special book from Mr Menzies (all school-children did) because Australia was 50 years old.

That began my political education.

My mother has the local wives in for a cup of Bushell’s Tea. They address each other as Mrs Mack and Mrs Doyle and Mrs W. Everyone is an Anglo; some fairly suspect people are Catholics and have statues in their houses, or so we have heard.

Sunday nights in winter we listen to the radio and make toast by holding it on a fork in front of the lounge-room fire. It is rather nice.

I still like to eat toast and listen to the radio on Sunday nights, but do not have a lounge-room fire. And then read.

Mr Menzies is Prime Minister, although the High Court found his Communist Party Dissolution Act invalid, and the Labor-dominated Senate blocked his banking legislation, leading to a double dissolution and an election. Australia has 8,5000,000 people. Over 90% of them are still Anglo-Celtic.

King George VI is on the throne, and crackers are let off on Empire Day, bonfires lit. The neighbourhood seem to spend weeks building the fire on a vacant lot down the road.

In a year George VI and my sister will both be dead.

In 2050 Australia will be 50% Anglo-Celtic. M and M may both be alive then, M2 almost certainly. M2 will be a decade older than I am now.

Weeping like a child for the past

D H Lawrence’s poem "Piano" is as powerful an enactment in words of nostalgia as I know. Like sentimentality or grief, it is a quality that defines us as human; to be without it is to be less than human. Like those, it is also dangerous, or can be. It is instructive sometimes to check a dictionary, in this case the latest Shorter Oxford:

nostalgia | n. L18. [mod.L (tr. G Heimweh homesickness), f. Gk NOSTOS + algos pain: see -IA1.] 1 Acute longing for familiar surroundings; severe homesickness. L18. 2 Regret or sentimental longing for the conditions of a period of the (usu. recent) past; (a) regretful or wistful memory or imagining of an earlier time. E20. b Cause for nostalgia; objects evoking nostalgia collectively. L20.

2 A. TOFFLER This reversion to pre-scientific attitudes is accompaniedby a tremendous wave of nostalgia. Country Life Nostalgia for a worldof Norfolk jackets, muttonchop whiskers, penny-farthing bicycles. A. BROOKNER She alone remembers her father with nostalgia for his benevolent if abstracted presence. b P. DE VRIES Her potato bread was sheer mouth-watering nostalgia.
Also nostalgy n. (rare) M19.*

The earlier use confirms my feeling that nostalgia can be a form of grief. Migrants, I am told, especially involuntary ones such as refugees, spend their lives going through the stages of grief over and over again, even when on the surface they may appear settled. In a sense we are all migrants, and our home country is childhood, or some warmer world than the present, which may be a world of imagination. I am a nostalgic person, and it is my own childhood that draws me, or even my mother’s childhood, a more bucolic world or apparently more settled values. My mother’s father, whom I dearly loved, was a teacher; in a sense it was my nostalgia as a 16-year old that made me become a teacher.
I would not be without the sometimes sad pull of nostalgia, yet I also recognise it is a force that can lead away from maturity and contentment in the present moment. I think it partly explains why I am drawn to younger people than myself; if I am honest, it must be seen as a reluctance to leave youth behind–the "Peter Pan" principle, or what the Jungians call puer aeternus. That is part of my make-up, not in itself a bad thing but bad if allowed to become unbalanced. "To be young at heart" and all that is the positive side. Paradoxically, nostalgia also draws the young to those who are older, as part of their appeal is that they may represent a "lost world" to those on the edge of the complex and possibly dangerous choices life offers. And you thought it was "wisdom" the old had to offer; well, partly so–but it is also a retreat into a "better" past through the old sometimes I suspect. Certainly there was a lot of that in my affection for my grandfather, apart from the fact that he amply deserved such affection.

In politics the role of nostalgia is well worth exploring. I would hypothesise that much of the appeal of reactionary or conservative politics is nostalgia, which can be easily distorted or manipulated. From the Nazis to Pauline Hanson to George Dubya Bush to John Howard–consider these not as equivalents–it would be silly to say Howard has much in common with Hitler–yet nostalgia is a crucial factor in all four, I suggest. Not to mention the present ruling party in India, fundamentalism worldwide, and so on: a force to be reckoned with is nostalgia.
In education, nostalgia governs attitudes to schooling, often to the detriment of education, which needs to be future-oriented as well as conservative. To prepare students for a world that existed for their parents or grandparents is to betray those students. Yet there are lessons from the past, and things worth preserving: respect for the rule of law and human rights, for example. Hence I again stress the immense value of studying History–but critically rather than nostalgically or sentimentally.

So much more could be said, but that is enough for one Sunday rave!

My June 09 South Sydney Herald piece

Redfern has its say on Human Rights

May 7 Around thirty people from a range of backgrounds heard expert views at a Community Consultation on Human Rights at Redfern Town Hall.

Chaired by Sydney Peace Foundation Director Professor Stuart Rees, a panel outlined issues in a number of areas. Indigenous Australians were represented by Charmaine Weldon, women’s domestic violence expert at Redfern Legal Centre. Culturally and Linguistically Diverse matters were the area of Rosa Loria from Sydney Multicultural Services, while Annie Parkinson raised issues concerning people with disabilities. A former asylum seeker from Bangladesh, Maqsood Alshams, outlined his personal experience and addressed related matters. Maqsood spent 16 months in the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre before his release in April 2000. GLBT and sexuality concerns were the province of Yasmin Hunter from Redfern Legal Centre.

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After refreshments came the action. Groups of six discussed their concerns and what they had heard in the first part of the meeting. Each group contributed to a submission to be sent to the National Human Rights Consultation Committee. Individuals were also encouraged to make personal submissions.

Matters in this area are not as simple as they might at first seem. First, as Andrew Lynch says in an article on Australian Policy Online, “the Commonwealth attorney-general, Robert McClelland, made it clear that constitutional entrenchment of rights, empowering the courts to strike down legislation it found in breach of a protected right, was not on the table.” What is up for discussion is a parliamentary Act similar to the ACT’s Human Rights Act and Victoria’s Charter of Rights and Responsibilities.

Several speakers drew attention to the great difference between enshrining rights in such an Act or Charter and actual social equality – what happens in day-to-day life, which is a matter of the psyche rather than the statute books.

An audience member, claiming Indigenous Australians have “no rights”, cited difficulties experienced paying for funerals, but it is doubtful that would be addressed under a Human Rights Act or Charter. It is an important issue, no doubt affecting many marginalised through poverty in this country.

Then there are paradoxes: the tension between anti-vilification laws and freedom of speech, for example, or removal of discrimination on grounds of same sex relationships at Centrelink actually working against the financial interests of some couples.

But do have your say.

Submissions close on 15 June. You can make a submission by going to the NHRC website at You may also send your ideas to:

National Human Rights Consultation Secretariat
Attorney-General’s Department
Central Office
Robert Garran Offices
National Circuit

See also (A Human Rights Act for Australia) and (Australian Policy Online).


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Memorabilia 17 – Sydney University: Fisher Library c.1960

Fisher 6

I suspect this is a few years before 1960, when I arrived at Uni, but the Library is as it was then. To the right were the book stacks, remarkable for their glass floors. That door at the end opened on to a small balcony. At desperate times, as when essays were due, some students used to take books out there and throw them down to waiting accomplices. Needless to say, I didn’t. 😉 The area is now known as the McLaurin Hall.

The picture is from Sydney University archives.