Almanac Book Review – How the West was One

 

A boy’s eighth birthday present is an old girl’s bike his father has painted bright blue. He rides it to the Newport quarry to go toboganning on sheets of cardboard. No need for snow.

 

Two young girls’ houses are so close to each other in West Footscray that they can talk to each other at night by standing on boxes in their bathrooms to chat through the high louvre windows.

 

Families in far-flung Deer Park look over their back fences and see nothing but paddocks of purple thistles.

 

Two blokes looking for romance steal the Somerville Road tram on their way to the local dance.

 

Welcome to life in the western suburbs of Melbourne in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, as chronicled in a new book, How the West was One.

 

Thirty-eight born and bred locals have penned their memories of childhood, of migration, of poverty, of survival, of pride. The tone is generally lighter rather than darker as the storytellers focus on the benefits (rather than the hardships) of living in mostly crowded, often tough communities.

 

The contributors include Kerrie Soraghan (author of The Mighty West), writer Lucia Nardo, singers Wendy Stapleton and Pat Wilson, actor Kevin Harrington, and Ted Whitten Jnr.

 

Tony Leonard says Footscray was my entire world and nothing really existed past Hopkins Street. The only clue that we may have been of a ‘lower’ class was my wonderful eldest sister Pam writing her address as Maidstone 3012 rather than Footscray 3011.

 

Michael Leunig went to a new high school that didn’t actually have a school building. We assembled in the agricultural showgrounds and had lessons in showrooms and sheep and poultry pavilions and climbed windmills for physical education…At show time we were herded out of there into the nearby ordnance factory, where military weapons were manufactured.

 

Journalist Lina Caneva recalls growing up in The Strand pub in Newport, its clientele including many of the construction workers of the nearby Westgate Bridge. The normally busy counter-lunch crowd was very light [on October 15, 1970]. It was only until the sounds of ambulances and sirens alerted everyone that we realised something serious had happened.(Caneva pinpoints the start of her journalism career to writing lacrosse reports for the Williamstown Advertiser.)

 

Musician Mark Ferrie, of the Models and the RocKwiz Orchestra, traces his music heritage to his grandmother Lillian. It was thought she could have had a career in music had it not been for the fact that she was female, from Footscray and raising a family during the Depression.

 

How the West was One is about how the west shapes lives, how it leaves marks as permanent as a tattoo from Braybrook.

 

It’s about milk bars and outside dunnies and penny bungers and pubs. It’s about keeping pigeons, it’s about making horses out of broomsticks and billy carts out of whatever you could scrounge in the street. It’s about the Grand Theatre in Footscray and The Sun Theatre in Yarraville. It’s about the Bulldogs, but only occasionally.  It’s about migrants looking for safety after World War 2, only to be called wogs and worse.

 

It’s also about class. Enza Gandolfo writes most eloquently on this subject towards the end of the book. Whatever my change in circumstances, I carry my background and therefore my class – an accident of birth though it may be – with me always. Those of us who, through education or money, no longer fit easily into the working class can never shake where we come from: we hover in between..

It is important not to romanticise the working class – there is nothing romantic about poverty, about working long hours in dirty and dangerous work. The working class are no less racist, sexist or conservative. My father and his friends called themselves socialist and could talk for hours about the terrible job the Liberal Party was doing, and then complained when the government built public housing in the neighbourhood.

 

Rob Sitch’s foreword concentrates on factories and infrastructure. (He uses the latter word several times, suggesting he may have still been in Utopia/Nation Building mode while crafting his insightful paragraphs.) 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.

 

While How the West was One is inevitably steeped in the past, Sitch is wary of nostalgia for its own sake. I’ve always felt that nostalgia is a very expensive commodity. People move on, so do cities. However in a city that is changing as rapidly as Melbourne it’s worth a drive around some of these old suburbs – not only to see what is being lost but also to rediscover what many Melburnians never knew existed.

 

How the West was One, Memoirs of Melbourne’s Western Suburbs
Edited by Karyn Howie and Sue O’Brien
Published by Boom Baby Boom Publishing, 2017.

 

Find out more about the book and purchase copies HERE.

 

Launched at the Yarraville Club, Sunday 12 November.

 

All profits from sales of the book go to Western Chances, which annually provides hundreds of scholarships to students of Melbourne’s west.   westernchances.org.au

 

Disclaimer: The reviewer, Vin Maskell. is a blow-in.  Has only lived in the west half his life, since 1986.

 

About Vin Maskell

Founder and editor of Stereo Stories, a partner site of The Footy Almanac. Likes a gentle kick of the footy on a Sunday morning, when his back’s not playing up. Been known to take a more than keen interest in scoreboards – the older the better.

Comments

  1. John Butler says:

    Enjoyed that Vin.

    As an old bayside boy, the West always felt like a different way of life. Something this book would seem to confirm. I look forward to reading it.

    Cheers

  2. As a western suburbs boy, I am looking forward to reading this one, Vin.

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