History is a bitch

I say that in the most spiteful, selfish way I know. I say it that way because I know now that I should have paid proper attention to the lessons history was offering to teach. If only my judgment hadn’t been so clouded. If only I’d felt strong enough to confront the next steps.

Exactly where I’d like to be now

As we reached the end of 2015 and tumbled abruptly into January and a sudden return to work, study and hectic family life, Mr Chewbacca and I knew we had to make a decision and get the ball rolling based on that decision. It wasn’t an easy choice, whether to stay in Canada or return to Australia. It wasn’t a good time to be making such a decision. It was finally really cold, which was lovely but also beginning to present difficulties. I was facing a whole new set of courses at uni and I found myself feeling relieved that this was my final semester as it was hard work. The schedule of work, school, daycare and uni, then family time fitting in around that, was a challenge. And Canada hadn’t been kind to us, with Murphy’s Law dominating through much of our early months. We were still in shock, trying to adjust. I was tired. Weary, as my dad would say. I wasn’t up for yet more paperwork. I certainly wasn’t in love with Canada, and think that was because Toronto, for me, isn’t the most inspiring city, and then Oakville, while nice, is sort of devoid of character. “No love”, as I wrote at the time.

I met half-heartedly with an immigration advisor at the uni to find out the next steps for staying longer in Canada. Two separate applications were needed, one to work immediately following graduation, and one to set the wheels in motion for PR, which wouldn’t be a quick process and required proof of our good financial standing (ie money in the bank). With, let’s face it, a low salary, plus all the expenses and having shelled out so much money for uni fees, the thought of a hard slog to get these applications going was just too much for me to bare. I think I just gave up at that point. Staying was in the too hard basket. And I wanted the stability and familiarity of home. Canada was pissing me off, it was just too different and not in a good way. I know Mr C tried to get me to see why we should stay another year but I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to be receptive to him, plus he was feeling a little disillusioned and raw as well I think. So we decided. Home in July, as soon as Dude finished school.

I knew what had happened previously when my grandparents came to Australia from the UK. That move, and subsequent ping-ponging between the two countries affected the family to a depth that still impacts today, over 45 years after the last move. The ties to Britain are so strong, even stronger than my ties to Australia. I’m sure more than one member of the family would argue that they should never have come, they should have stayed at home. But it was my grandad who was perhaps idealistic and had itchy feet, yearning for a more relaxed lifestyle after having travelled quite a bit during his time in the army.

And now the same is happening to us. I have this desperate need to find a place we feel at home. I thought it could be Australia but I’m not so sure any more. I can’t believe it took coming home again to realise this. I feel like a fool.

I’m writing this post two weeks exactly after getting back to Australia and we aren’t even in Melbourne yet, where we plan to live. Maybe it’s too soon but we’re feeling entirely regretful about leaving Canada. I have no interest in going back to Toronto or Oakville but I think the positives over there may just outweigh the positives here. I’m not sure I want to stay in Australia.

I won’t publish this yet, it’s too shameful. But when you read this, know that I had only been home two weeks when I wrote it so maybe, just maybe, I was wrong.

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To my extended family

I adore my immediate family, my husband and kids, and although they’re far away it’s nice to have a strong connection with my children’s grandparents too. But I don’t mention much about my extended family. I’m an only child, so I’m talking about aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. This is because I haven’t made much effort to be in touch with them. Actually, I’m going to be honest here, I’ve actively avoided them. And now, at the age of 37, for the first time, I’m beginning to feel terrible about that. So this post is an apology to my family for cutting them out, even if they didn’t notice.

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my family. none of the people in this photo are alive any more and i never met any of them. this is my great-grandparents’ wedding, taken at St Bartholemew’s somewhere in London’s East End, Boxing Day 1923

I didn’t really grow up with my cousins. They mainly lived in Sydney and my parents and I moved to Canberra when I was two or three. We’d visit of course, but it’s not the same. And frankly, I don’t know why, but I always felt different, like I didn’t really identify with my family. On one side, I think the lack of language contributed – they all spoke or understood a bit of Serbian and I knew none at all. On the other side, I felt a little closer to them, but culturally, again, they were more ‘Aussie’ or something. When I was a teenager and even into my 20s I was a real snob. Yeah, this is an honest post. I was so stuck up, constantly comparing myself with others, insecure, immature, unable to accept that everyone is different, with different influences and ideas and desires and strengths and weaknesses.

Having said that, I was very anti-Australia for the longest time, despite having been born and growing up in Australia. I considered myself ‘European’, whatever that means. I think it meant that I didn’t identify with Australian culture and I felt like being European was classier, like people from Europe have more of a world view, are more educated, more intelligent, more refined. I was revolted by bogans. It really was snobbery on my part.

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countdown to departure, July 2007

I think there were a couple of pivotal moments that changed my perception about my cultural identity and where I belonged, but it’s only recently that my familial identity has begun to matter. Just after turning 18, my dad took me to the UK for five weeks. I was so excited as it was my first overseas trip and I was finally going to visit this mythical land of ‘England’ where I felt my cultural heart truly belonged. It was a shock, to say the least. I will never forget the feeling of weight I experienced; all those people, all that history, all mixed up, rushing, spilling, washing over me. I felt claustrophobic, weighed down by the sheer volume of ‘stuff’ that had happened in that place over the centuries of city living. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t wait to get out. I was amazed at how dirty all the London transit vans were, just smog and road dirt accumulating. Some of the roads, remnants of Roman walls, puddles filling in uneven pavement, crowds trying to enter and exit stations and trains, it was all so full and overwhelming to me, a very naive, immature teenager with very little experience of the real world. I’d come from Canberra, the cleanest, quietest city in the world, a population of around 350,000 neatly arranged in suburbs around a handful of peaceful ‘town centres’. This is a city that was planned. The closest thing to a traffic jam occurs when you have to slow down a little bit because the NRMA are jump starting someone’s Datsun in the Parliamentary Triangle and it’s 8am. Everyone in Canberra drives. It’s about as far from London as you can get in every respect.

So at 18, I realised I wasn’t European. I was so glad to be Aussie. We landed at Sydney airport on a warm January evening and I have never been so glad to get into a creaky Falcon with a Lebanese driver and try not to get car sick because the suspension on those things is like a roller coaster ride gone wrong! I was home. But the gratitude for being home didn’t last long. Four years later I embarked on an adventure to take advantage of a scholarship and I studied in Siena, Italy for three months. That was a great experience and my world view expanded quite a bit.

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at Telstra Tower, Canberra, in 2013

When push finally came to shove and I realised how toxic my life in Canberra had become, I went back to London in 2007. I was 28. I planned to stay for six months and I wasn’t there to party it up or take drugs or have fun. I didn’t do fun. So much for that. As I’m sure anyone who knows me knows, my London years changed my life. I met the love of my life, I grew up about 20 years in the space of two and a half, and my sense of cultural identity got a whole lot more complex.

Moving back to Australia in 2010 and having my son in 2011, the pull to find where I belonged, to find a home, was even stronger. But I didn’t yet equate home with family. I was starting a family, sure, but I still had this firm belief that ‘my’ family would be my husband and child(ren), and the extended family, some of whom I’d fallen out with by this point over various misunderstandings and overreactions, were not going to be part of my life. I am a fair person by nature, but I’m also a classic overreactor. If I feel stressed or under pressure, I will back out. I’ll just drop everything, push everyone away; it’s all or nothing. I am insecure, I hate intervening or getting in people’s way. I don’t want to disturb. But often this is interpreted as snooty-ness or rudeness when really it’s the extreme opposite! My worst nightmare is having to ask for something, even if it’s something I’m entitled to, something I own, I just don’t want to confront, I don’t want to state my case, I don’t want to attract attention to myself.

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London. Nuff said

So continuing on from my escape to London, I slowly began to extricate myself from any hint of connection to my extended family. They are all clever, sensitive, aware people, and I’m sure many of them wondered what my problem was, why I was trying to disappear from their lives. I worried that one falling out meant I’d automatically burnt my bridges with others connected to that one person, so I just unfriended everyone on facebook and set my profile to private and got on with life.

As my son grew up and my husband and I got to know each other better, questions arose. My husband was a bit miffed at not getting to meet my family, but I remember saying, oh, don’t worry, it’s more trouble than it’s worth. Secretly, though, I knew that wasn’t the case. I just didn’t know how to make things right. I felt stressed out by all the emotional stuff I was going through and I couldn’t deal with the communication challenge. So I keep everyone at arm’s length.

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I just don’t like Sydney but I must admit it was nice living across the road from this

I think since coming to Canada and experiencing such homesickness I have also begun to feel sad about my lack of connection with my extended family. I unblocked everyone ages ago and my profile is no longer totally locked down. I occasionally have a little look around, see some comments and conversations on the pages of some family who I am still privileged enough to be friends with, and I see them loving each other, my family. I see how grateful they are to have each other, how much of an effort they make to stay in touch, and I envy that connection. I wish I hadn’t been so stubborn and stupid. I don’t know if I’ve burnt my bridges, I hope not, but I don’t know what I could say that could make it right. All I hope is that my family can forgive my silliness and we can move on in peace. I hope we can reconnect, but if not, I hope they all know that I bear no one ill will and I am grateful for each person’s impact on my life.

Coming full circle

It’s been over a month since we arrived in Canberra. I expected to be blogging sooner but our Internet connection got screwed up and we had to wait. So this was drafted on my phone and finished over the weeks after our Internet was connected.

The move itself was insane. An interstate move is hard enough without hiring your own truck and having few volunteers to help load and unload. We really struggled to get people to help, due in part, I think, to my inability to embrace Sydney as home and make friends. Those who ended up coming to help were amazing! We planned four hours to load, meaning we’d be in Canberra for unloading at 3pm, but it took a lot longer, over two hours longer actually, which meant the truck, with Mr Chewbacca and our good friend S in it, arrived in the dark! The house at least has good heating, and we had a few movies on a USB to plug into the tv and stare at while we wolfed down pizza and beer before passing out. Dude ended up being in bed two hours after his bedtime. It was awful having to pull the mattresses and bedding out of the truck in the dark.

Packing and unpacking boxes is a thankless task!
Packing and unpacking boxes is a thankless task!

The next day I roped a couple of people into helping with the unloading which was easily done in an hour while I fiddled about trying to locate the coffee machine and get caffeine into everyone. What an ordeal! Yes, we saved a lot of money that we really haven’t got, given we’re both unemployed, but I can guarantee I won’t be attempting that again. It was made extra hard by needing to clean the new place before we could put stuff away. We’re only now finally unpacked, with a couple of near-empty boxes still floating about.

I am so glad to be out of Sydney! Despite the fact that we still have no income and we can finally see just how great a renovation job we’ve got to face, it feels good to be here. The weather has been great, some frosts and cool, crisp days, and we’ve been doing a bit of exploring. I’ve even been going for walks around the neighbourhood, which is something I never did when I lived here before. It feels great to exercise again (more on that aspect in my next post) and I’ve realised more and more just how strangely familiar this move is for me.

When I was two going on three, the same age as Dude is now, my parents and I moved to Canberra from Sydney. My dad was to get a job in the public service. We moved in with friends who had raved about how great Canberra was for kids and had relocated there a few years previously. I have vague memories of being there in those early days, and I’m pretty sure I had my third birthday there. Our friends had two huge German shepherds that would run around and up and down the stairs that led down to the back yard, stairs that seemed to go on forever. I once slammed my ring finger in the thick, oak front door. Blood was everywhere and my finger is very different from its counterpart on the other had to this day. My mum was more upset than me, I think. Somehow she thought if I were let to run wild a bit I’d be damaged. Or something like that anyway. The other kids, three of them, with the middle boy being my age, were louder and more outgoing than me. I think back and wonder whether I’d be more outgoing now if it weren’t for being cushioned. I don’t know.

My blurry photo of the first house I ever lived in Canberra
My blurry photo of the first house I ever lived in Canberra

Earlier this week, on the first of my energetic walks, I walked to this first house I ever lived in Canberra. Coincidentally, it is only about 40 minutes walk from our current house. Typical me, I still remember the address despite not having been there in at least 25 years. I wheeled the stroller containing a sleep-fighting dude along the complex network of walking paths that extend across most Canberra suburbs, through the awesomely convenient tunnels under the main roads (they used to seem scary to me as a child; now they’re just very convenient, although I often expect them to smell like stale urine. Most don’t actually). I ended up approaching through a cul-de-sac, where some other kids our friends knew used to live. I won’t ever forget watching Dirty Dancing at that house, after being forbidden to watch it by our mums. I think I must have been about eight. The cul-de-sac leads into what used to seem like a huge park in a massive expanse of empty land. It wasn’t as big as I remember! I walked past where there had been swings once. Huge boulders that seemed even bigger when I used to climb them still lay as if scattered by some giant.

I turned right onto the street and the house was next to me. It was pretty much exactly the same, albeit smaller and a little more overgrown with trees and hedges. I wanted to stop and snap a photo but felt like whoever lived there now could see me, so I just pointed my phone in the general direction and took a picture without stopping. Hence the pointless image above.

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One of Canberra’s many footpath underpasses – Dude loves them, he shouts ‘echo!’ as we go underneath

As I walked up what used to seem like the steepest hill in the world, I thought that this move to Canberra, while great, is definitely not a permanent one. I now have a new-found love for this place and I will always love it as my home town but I think we need to do what we came here to do and move on to Melbourne where we can start fresh. In addition to my lingering need to get a feel for life in Melbourne and hopefully settle there permanently, I have this uneasy, suffocating feeling about repeating history by staying here. There are too many similarities between our move and my parents and mine over 30 years ago and while I’m eternally grateful to whatever force caused my parents to leave Sydney, many of the things that happened in Canberra to my family were not great and I don’t want any possibility of any more history repeating itself. There’s more to say, but I’ll leave it at that.

So after a brief chat with Mr C, the decision has been made to prep the house for sale and blow this Popsicle stand as soon as we can. So much more to do yet but at least we have a plan!

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One aspect of many that we need to do with at our Canberra place – the back yard. This is actually part way through the work we’ve done to date, which involved removing 40-year-old Banksia roses that were so overgrown, they were starting to collapse the fence. We’ve now planted cypress trees around the fence which will eventually grow into a high hedge.

A life lived large

This is my granddad, Hector:

I’ve had this photo in my possession since I was 14. I did a family history project then, which was the beginning of my genealogical research. That was nearly 20 years ago now.

See the eyes? They were a bright, piercing blue; my son has them. And those pointed, slightly buck teeth? Same in my mouth. My dad got his black hair from granddad. Luckily no one else in the family has inherited that nose – you can’t see it in the photo but it was large and hooked. You can see the smooth confidence this young man exudes, he’s an open book.

All I knew previously was that this photo was taken around 1943 or 44. But now I know more.

“We went into town, got drunk, and had our picture taken.” This was 1944, at the end of granddad’s training for the paratroop regiment. He was 17. He tried to join the army the year before but his mother followed him down to the recruiting office, gave the recruiting officer a serve and dragged granddad home by the scruff of his neck. “If you must join up, you’ll wait until you’re 17 and for Christ’s sake, stay off the water! Get into something with wheels on.” This was his father’s lecture. He’d just returned from five voyages to Dunkirk. He knew what his son would be confronted with. And he knew how vulnerable being on the ocean would make him.

Granddad did get into something with wheels on, but only because of a slight tall tale he rattled off. Upon signing up at 17, when asked by a superior what aspect of duty interested him, granddad mentioned he knew how to drive a bren gun carrier. A lie of course, unless you count the one time he and his mate accidentally drove a bren gun carrier into an Air Raid Warden’s hut. “Which side are you on?” shouted the Warden. “Silly little buggers.” They were 15 and had no licenses.  But that was war, that was the way things went in London in those days. The superior officer was impressed and assigned young Hector to drive trucks. He had a day’s lessons, no real driving experience, and then he was put at the wheel of a first world war Leyland Lynx, a huge monstrosity of a vehicle that required some clutch skills just to get into the next gear. Which was a challenge for Hector as he didn’t actually know how to change gear at all. Luckily his superior and the mechanic were riding up front with him and taught him as he went, with 30 troops in the back, complaining all the way about the bunny hopping.  Off they trundled, in convoy with another truck, across from the far north east of England, Newbiggin by Sea, to Kirkcudbrightshire, just over the Scottish border further west.  They hit the notoriously bad weather in those parts, and the second truck broke down.  This is where destiny begins to show itself in granddad’s life.  He suggested to the officer in charge that they put the 30 troops in his truck.  And against his better judgment, the officer agreed. So now he had 60 troops, two officers, and the mechanic.  The others stayed behind with the broken down truck. The mechanic mentioned they might make up for lost time if they removed the speed limiter the truck was fitted with, and granddad liked this idea a lot.  They came to a sign at the top of a steep incline. “Use low gear”.  Granddad ignored it.  He took off down the hill, spun the truck and overturned it into a tree, the troops having abandoned it halfway down the hill and the mechanic hiding in the footwell. Broken gear stick.  Disaster.  He hadn’t even been in the army three months, and this was his first driving assignment.

So even though it wasn’t his fault, although he could have been more cautious, he was reprimanded and sent off to peel potatoes all day as punishment for two weeks. It didn’t seem much of a punishment.  He and his mate (he always had one with him) were on their lunch break.  They’d snuck off beyond where they should have been and were having a smoke and watching the planes coming in over the downs doing bombing raid practices. And suddenly they saw one plane land roughly and crash nearby.  Without thinking, they rushed across and dragged out the pilot and rolled him in the dirt to put out the fire on his suit, shortly before the whole plane exploded. They disappeared as soon as the fire brigade showed up, hoping their little stunt might go unnoticed. The pilot remembered them and pointed them out.  They were transferred to another unit, “got rid of”, sent back to London on a week’s leave with orders to report back to the CO.  Apparently they had been labelled as ‘good round aeroplanes’, so to their shock and confusion, Hector and his mate, who he refers to as Bennett, were sent up to Marlborough and then Leicester for paratrooper training.

There’s more to the story, so much more, but this is just a little snippet of my granddad’s extraordinary adventures, taken directly from his own narration on the tapes I’ve been transcribing which he recorded in 1996. Unfortunately, as I think I might have mentioned before, I got to the second recording only to discover it’s unintelligible. All is not lost though, as I’m going to try and adjust the sound with some software.  I am desperate to hear about how he met my grandmother.  All I know is that they met at a dance sometime around the end of the war and he told her he’d marry her during that first dance and she laughed and said there’s no chance. I can imagine that.

Dynasty (aka why I have slacked off on blogging recently)

Today my grandad would have been 86. The fifth. Always the fifth in our family, so many of us born on the fifth of the month for some odd reason. Grandad died in 2003. On the fifth. In fact it was on my birthday. I turned 25. My boyfriend at the time and I we’re over at my mum’s place feeding her dogs when my dad called to tell me grandad had collapsed and this was probably it. He was crying. As soon as I got off the phone, I burst into tears. Weird, as death usually doesn’t make me cry. It was just so sudden, but that’s grandad, we all knew he’d just pop off one day when it was time. He was 77. Doesn’t sound very old but considering his own father died at about 60, it’s pretty good going.

About a week ago, my dad mentioned he’d drop by to bring me something. It was a memory stick. And on it, are four sound files, between 90 and 120 minutes each. My uncle had digitised them from tapes my grandad had recorded. Finally, I’ve got his story in my hands!

I knew grandad was writing his memoir and I remember seeing a huge ream of typed pages once, which he said was his book. He had an old typewriter, and he’d type with two fingers. There we’re always murmurs about the book, but none of us ever read it. Grandad’s book. After he died, I asked around the family to find out who had it. Denial from all parties. People in my family tell tall stories and are terrified of the truth. Harsh, I know, but it’s genetic, we can’t help it!

Finally I discovered my uncle had the book. But when I quizzed him about it, he said it was just a bunch of silly stories we’d all heard before, nothing really interesting, just a few pages of ramblings. I was disappointed. And angry! I knew that was bullshit. I knew because I’d seen the book and somehow I knew my grandad had something important to say. He never wasted time. He wouldn’t have sat around typing away on that old typewriter, and later an old PC he got from the Salvos,* if there was nothing to be achieved.

But what could I do? I’m one of at least a dozen grandchildren, I love hundreds of kilometres away from my uncle and I seem to be one of the only people in the family who believes grandad had something important to say, was worthy of a voice. I thought about the book and I never lost hope that one day I’d read it and perhaps edit it so it could be published.

And now I have it, in sound form. He recorded it at Christmas in 1996 and he mentions the number of times he’s already written it out. “This is my story.” That’s how he begins. I was going to listen through once and then transcribe but I’ve decided to just transcribe straight away. Lord knows how he typed it out with two fingers! I touch type about 65 words a minute and I’m still not finished the first recording of about 90 minutes. It’s already nearly 10,000 words! There are stories within it that I’ve heard a few times and it’s nice to hear them again after nine years. There is a lot I’ve never heard and it’s giving me such an insight into who my grandad was. And it’s a good story!

So that’s why I haven’t blogged in a while. Every spare moment I have on the computer I use to transcribe. It’s compelling, addictive, and I can’t wait to hear what happens next. I’m right at the end of WWII now, about 1944, so I figure there’s lots more to come in the next three recordings. So exciting! What a story!

*Yes, you read that right, a computer from the Salvos. It actually worked, even though it was some kind if old skool Windows 3.1 OS and grandad couldn’t get the concept of saving stuff to the hard drive, so he became fixated on floppy disks… I wonder what happened to that computer?

The great history versus fiction debate

I’ve just finally read Kate Grenville’s The Secret River – I say ‘finally’ because it’s been sitting in my ‘to read’ pile for months now, and been on my list for much longer.  I can’t believe I left it so long!  It was such a great book, I devoured it in a week (which, for me, is a short amount of time to read even a small book).

It’s just the kind of writing I like and want to explore further, just fantastic.

Since finishing, I thought I’d look Kate up and see what background reading might be online about the book and her other work.  I came across her official site which has some great info on it about all her work.  It also contains some retorts from Kate on a couple of critical essays from historians.  I can’t believe they accused her of writing history when clearly the book is not intended as a work of history but more historical fiction.  One doesn’t have to glean this, it’s pretty clearly spelled out.

Anyway, rather than blab on about how unfair I think these historians have been to a clearly wonderful writer, I wanted to say that what I’d love to read about is the elements of the book that these historians consider fiction, rather than historical fact.  So of course we know the characters are fiction based on some historical characters, what we can’t be clear about is whether the sorts of environments, tools, weather, and general hardships experienced by the characters are true to history.  For example, did convicts’ wives really make the voyage with them?  And if so, were said convicts ‘assigned’ to their wives, as Thornhill was to Sal in The Secret River?  What about the places back in London that Grenville names – are they real?  Did convicts really get given their own bark hut as the Thornhill’s did?  And did it actually take a day to sail from Sydney to the Hawkesbury back in 1815?  These are the kinds of questions I’d love to hear historians answer.  I fully accept Kate has written a fiction based on historical events, so that’s all the more reason why I’d like to read essays from those ‘in the know’ (ie. colonial historians) discussing the truths and fictions of this book and more like it.

I read this book because I’m a) interested in good writing, b) interested in Australia, c) interested in historical fiction and d) interested in history; so I want to hear both the fictional and non-fictional account.  I think Kate has gone about things the right way, stating up from just what she wanted to achieve with the book and giving us a wonderful story with some historical elements woven in.  Where’s the criticism of books that try to pull the wool over our eyes – Gregory David Roberts’ Shantaram is a good example.  Is it because he didn’t write about long-ago history and more his own ‘story’ that no one bothered to criticise in the same way?  His was more of a work of fiction, only very loosely based on fact, yet he didn’t even bother to clarify his intent, instead just letting us naive readers be drawn into the story, only to find out (after some research) that it was all just a silly story…

Nice work Kate – can’t wait to read more!