Almanac Book Review – How the West was One: Stories of Melbourne’s Western Suburbs.

 

 

HOW THE WEST WAS ONE

 

A collection of stories from residents who lived in the western-suburbs of Melbourne during the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s.

Edited by Karyn Howie and Sue O’Brien.

Reviewed by Neil Anderson.

 

To purchase copies visit  www.howthewestwasone.com.au

 

The first thing I noticed  before I scanned this wonderful collection of stories was the title. For those of us who have to ensure we have to get our spelling right even before we construct something interesting to say, the title looked like it contains a huge spelling mistake.  One instead of Won. However, it should make an already worthy book stand out even more so on the bookshelves.

 

The second striking feature of this collection is the scope of well-known writers originally from the west who are not famous for their literature as such, but are from a variety of backgrounds in the Arts, film, television, teaching and journalism. All high-achievers. All proud of their upbringing in Melbourne’s western suburbs. With the Bulldogs’ breakthrough win in 2016, it has only added to the  popularity of the locale of these writers’ childhoods. These writers have gone beyond the nostalgia of their mainly idyllic and uncomplicated childhoods to remind us that Footscray and district is once again the place to be.

 

The forward to the book is written by Rob Sitch. Another high-achieving. proud Westie. Not surprisingly, he writes beautifully and accurately capturing the very essence of what he observed as a child in Footscray. The unique Australian character of working men and women from that time. But what else would you expect from someone who created Daryl Kerrigan in his film The Castle. A character living in the highly-regulated bureaucracy-gone-mad `90’s, but retaining the working-class values of someone from the 1950s. Daryl could easily have been my neighbour in Footscray during the 1950s.

 

Rob paints a picture of a different type of worker from his childhood days. One who was involved in factory shift-work in places such as Kinnears Ropes in Footscray. A place which happened to be located two kilometres from where I lived and where a lucky few of my school-mates went on excursion to see rope being made. Those of us who weren’t selected  for that coveted trip won the booby-prize.  A tour of the abattoirs instead to observe how meat was made, or should I say extracted. I’m sure it was the beginning of a vegetarian life-style for at least some of those eight year-olds.

 

Rob remembers fondly and accurately comparing the look of the eastern suburbs with the western suburbs where, “In the west nearly all the time and effort was dedicated to real purpose, to getting something made.” But when he travelled to the eastern suburbs he found in contrast, “There, a great deal of time and effort went into making things decorative and aesthetically pleasing.”

 

“The shift-worker in my mind would emerge from Kinnears Ropes in Footscray just after seven in the morning with a cigarette already lit and the huge factory still belching steam like Willy Wonka’s factory. In the west you could see employment. You could see the end of the shift and people spilling into streets and train stations. You could guess their occupation by their clothes.”

 

I have been privileged to read some of the 39 memoirs sent to me from one of the editors, Sue O’Brien. Sue had been impressed with the style of writing in the many pieces in The Doggies Almanac which she gave to her brother as a birthday present. She wanted to further spread the word about her own book which was about to be launched on behalf of the charity Western Chances.

 

My selection of stories to highlight include well-known names from film, radio and television. There is one from my neighbour in Footscray, although she was only two when I left for the eastern suburbs. One story is from co-editor Sue and one from Almanacker Kerrie Soraghan as well as Kerrie’s favourite philosopher/cartoonist, Michael Leunig. So many talented people to be found in just one collection of stories.

 

SUE O’BRIEN grew up in a tiny weatherboard cottage in Yarraville. Extra space was found for the large family when her father and uncle built a bungalow in the backyard. Without Council approval of course. The flouting of local by-laws to ‘knock up a bungalow’ out the back or any other structure was so common then. Not only thumbing their nose at local authorities, but using family labour to get the job done. To check the pink pages as they were coloured then for a tradesman to call was unheard of. This was for both monetary reasons and to avoid denting the pride of the man of the house known for his D.I.Y. skills.

Sue describes her school experiences of rote-learning, the terror of on-the-spot spelling tests and reciting the times table. Punishment from the nuns if wrong answers were given was to stay inside during lunch-time. Part of rote-learning for Geography was a puzzling exercise where the class was asked to rattle off the names of the major rivers in NSW. It did sound familiar to me however. My father who would have been going to school in the 1920s was able to name those NSW rivers when I was at high school in the 1960s. There must have been some sort of state cultural-cringe happening where the Victorian rivers weren’t deemed as important enough to remember.

Sue says, “Although my school-days were far from happy, the Sisters of St Joseph did provide me with a ‘good’ education.”

It must have been good. Sue has combined a thirty-year career as a professional singer with teaching in secondary schools in Melbourne’s western suburbs.

 

KEVIN HARRINGTON is the actor who couldn’t have come from any other suburb than Footscray. A Bulldog supporter from a strong Labor family.  A wonderful character-actor with leading roles in Sea Change, The Dish, Cliffy and Underbelly. Always cast as the archetypal laconic Australian. For Almanac readers and particularly Bulldog fans, there are many references and connections to the Footscray Football Club. Kevin tells the story of walking with his father past the local barber when a booming voice rang out to get the attention of Kevin’s father Pat. It was from the great man Ted Whitten who had played junior footy with Kevin’s Dad. Kevin asked his father later why he had not mentioned before that he knew Ted. His reply was no surprise to me because my own father lived by the same dictum. They hated people ‘who blew their own trumpet’. Kevin has called his memoir No trumpets in Footscray.

Kevin plays tribute to his mentor playwright Ray Lawler in his early theatre days and to Rob Sitch who directed him in The Dish. Kevin played Mitch who was at the controls of giant ‘dish’ at Parkes, NSW as part of the team responsible for tracking Apollo 11, as requested by NASA. The image of Mitch playing cricket on the giant dish during his break was about as Australian as you can get. When Kevin first met up with Rob Sitch on site ready for filming, they realised they went to the same school in Footscray. St John’s. Even more spooky, they worked out they would have been in the same classroom watching the same black and white TV televising the moon-landing of Apollo 11.

 

DEBRA MOORE was my young neighbour in Footscray. Her story and local references are very close to home for me. Literally. Debra lived about 50 metres from my house in an adjoining street. Debra was part of an extended family which included her mother, uncles, aunts, cousins and later grandparents. Debra says, “It seemed our home was always full of people, laughing, having fun, singing and dancing to music that reverberated within its walls.” This is in stark contrast to the Anderson family nearby who famously celebrated the first Bulldog premiership with a glass of cordial and a piece of sponge- cake. The wording written on the cake earlier in the day by my sister and mother read, ‘Bad Luck Footscray You Did Your Best’.

Another ‘close to home’ reference from Debra concerned the local milk bar at the end of her street. The same milk bar I wrote about in The Doggies Almanac because it was such an important feature of our neighbourhood.  The owner of the milk bar became like an adopted aunt for Debra as the woman generously allowed Debra’s mum to place items ‘on the tab’ in between pay-days. A bag of broken biscuits from the shop was regarded as a ‘ treat’ in those days and malted milks were even rarer treats. They were only provided as a ‘pick-me-up’ when Debra was sick.

Debra also reminded us of the number of food deliveries including the greengrocer driving down the street as well as the wood-man, baker and milkman – all in horse and cart. I remember the ice-man did cometh as well.

Debra has led a fairly bohemian lifestyle which she says stems from growing up with lots of lively, artistic people. She now assists in the design and construction of costuming for local theatre companies. However, her true passion is in painting and drawing.

 

KERRIE SORAGHAN writes about her family moving from a rented house in Sunshine to a brand new house being built for them in Deer Park. The thinking at the time was anything new with lots of open spaces for the kids had to be better. Kerrie explained,“Dad was proud that we were leaving behind those frumpy, run-down inner western suburbs. They had dowdy homes built in the 1930’s and 40’s. Places like Yarraville, Seddon and Footscray.” The bucolic-sounding name of Deer Park in fact was flat and lifeless which Kerrie has called in her story, ‘The Land of the Purple Thistle’. Carpet in rooms instead of polished boards, a gas space-heater instead of an open fire wasn’t enough to offset the bad bits such as the inability to get a permit to install a septic-tank. The tank which was eventually ‘permitted’ to be installed sixteen years later. Like Sue O’Brien’s father, it’s not surprising Kerrie’s dad avoided seeking council permits for his ‘dodgy’ renovations.

There were card-games at night for Kerrie and her family, the occasional trip to the Moonee Valley trots and the very occasional, tentative visit to the Chinese restaurant. In an era  when Aussies were reluctant to try foreign cuisine, Kerrie’s family would opt for something ‘safe’ off the Australian menu.

Kerrie must have inherited her steely determination from her grandmother which served her well when Kerrie was at the forefront of saving her beloved Bulldogs from extinction. Kerrie’s grandmother was nearly fifty when she returned to study and qualified as a typist securing a job at Ajax Pumps in Tottenham. She then went on to obtain a driver’s licence for the first time.

Remarkably, Kerrie started her studies at Melbourne University at age 16. Not surprisingly none of Kerrie’s fellow students had heard of Deer Park and she soon tired of explaining where exactly it was to the students from leafy suburbs. It meant there was some lonely times before she graduated with a Bachelor of Arts. A qualification she put to good use working as a social worker in the western suburbs. Kerrie said, “ I saw lives and struggles and heartaches and a stoicism that I knew so well.”

Kerrie’s other claim to fame is seen in the blog she writes called ‘The Bulldog Tragician‘. Perhaps it was more relevant prior to her beloved Bulldogs breakthrough win in 2016, but Kerrie continues to write stories connected to the Bulldogs and western-suburbs.  Kerrie has also written quality articles for the Footy Almanac.

 

TONY LEONARD of Coodabeen Champions fame, and 3AW these days, and  MICHAEL LEUNIG of Australia-wide fame lived in the Footscray North area. Tony loved living in Gordon Street and fifty years later he was able to remember the names of businesses and shops that were up and down his street starting at Ballarat Road. Naturally gregarious, he also remembered the names of local residents  I’m sure he would have been quick to say hello to back in the day. He said he doesn’t know anyone from his old area anymore but has retained a number of friends from his school days.

Of course living just a Ted Whitten torp from the Western Oval, Tony has always been a Bulldog’s man and still calls the footy on radio as well as presenting on sports shows.

He describes the Bulldog premiership win as follows and is not afraid to use the correct names of the teams involved emphasising his baby-boomer heritage.

What a glorious day, from here to eternity, is 1 October, 2016:

Footscray  13. 11.89

South Melbourne  10. 7. 67

Premiers. Yes, premiers.

 

MICHAEL LEUNIG and his school-day experiences are the hardest to summarise. It’s a bit like unravelling one of his cartoons that involve Mr Curly and the ducks. Sometimes it’s fairly obvious and sometimes not. Michael wrote mainly about his schooldays where he says the education system didn’t suit him. It’s remarkable he has been so successful as a deep and sensitive philosopher after being that square peg in a round hole at school. Someone who now draws cartoons to help explain to us mere mortals what is going on inside his head.

Like my old high school in the eastern suburbs, permanent buildings were never ready to accommodate the influx of baby-boomer students in the 1950s. And that’s what happened to Michael, but it never worried him at all and he treated it as one big adventure. The students were accommodated firstly at the showgrounds and then the old ordinance factory complete with intermittent unexplained explosions. All this was combined with the toxic fumes from the adjoining tip before Maribynong High had their permanent buildings.

Michael was talking about his old school and rats from the tip when he was guest speaker at a private-school in Perth. Ironically, a huge rat appeared in the hall where he was speaking. Completely nonplussed, this would have at least given him something interesting to include in his next cartoon as he pondered the thought that rats could appear at any school regardless of the school’s status.

 

How The West Was One was officially launched at the Yarraville Club at 2pm, November 12th by Terry Bracks of ‘Western Chances’.    

 

To purchase copies visit  www.howthewestwasone.com.au

 

 

 

 

About Neil Anderson

Enjoys reading and writing about the Western Bulldogs. Instead of wondering if the second premiership will ever happen, he can now bask in the glory of the 2016 win.

Comments

  1. I enjoyed reading the summaries of some of the stories and look forward to reading the lot! I generously bought a copy for Neil’s birthday and will have first dibs (I spent formative years in Yarraville so I think I’ve earned that right). Great stuff! Well done everyone.

  2. Yvette Wroby says:

    Hi Neil, great review and I’ve ordered my copy. Looks wonderful. Well done to Sue and her team.

  3. Great to read this review Neil. I still laugh out loud at the Andersons’ gloomy expectations and the ‘bad luck’ cake in 1954. I think, as John Harms says in his introduction, there is something universal in these tales, something anyone working class or of a particular era can understand. Yet there are things that are quintessentially Melbourne, western suburbs, and dare I say it, Bulldog-esque about our experiences too.

  4. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says:

    I’ll be interested to read this and compare it to my upbringing as a Northern Bulldog in Adelaide.

  5. Yes i’m another who looks forward to a perusal of this work.

    Working in the West the last 15 years i marvel at the differences from the West i grew up in back in the 60’s +. The changes aren’t bad, just different, adding to the lure of the area. The old industries are pretty much gone; with their resultant work. Different emigre communities move in establish themselves, add to the mix, then the offspring move on, out,usually further west. The footy and cricket clubs have changed their names,and home grounds. Where have all the old pubs gone ?!? With the recent closure of Harts’s it’s a bit of a challenge.

    The book is one i need to add to my book shelf. I work in the West, though it’s many year since i’ve lived there but as they say: You can take the boy out of the West, but you can’t take the West out of the boy.

    Glen!

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