Multiculturalism and My Home Town
I have been an Australia Day Ambassador for over 25 years and, this year, I decided it was time to call it quits. I head off to the Snowy Valley Council (recently amalgamated) today to perform my duties at my home town of Tumut and also, as a bonus, at Batlow, Adelong and Talbingo. This will be my swansong.
It will be a deeply sentimental journey. I still love the whole area and, over the years, I have written about it as a very special place … often sighting it as my favourite region in Australia.
I will write about the complex problem that is Australia Day tomorrow. For now let me wallow in fond memories of my home town. And, yes, some of this will inevitably end up in the speeches I make.
When Phillip Knightley, that great investigative journalist who exposed the thalidomide scandal for the Sunday Times long before it was owned (and debauched) by Uncle Rupert, wrote a book about Australia he, very flatteringly, included a short section I had written about growing up in Australia in the 1950s.
It is worth revisiting because, at the moment, we are going through a messy and confused time (will we ever be free from our fear of “new Australians”?) where we have become scared of new arrivals and paranoid, without justification, about people who will enrich our society.
"As a child growing up in Tumut in the 1940s and 1950s, I was surrounded by an unremitting monoculture. Beer, strongly brewed tea, lots of fatty mutton with peas and burnt potatoes and pumpkins, loaves of white bread with butter and jam.
The town was divided aggressively between the descendants of English and Scottish Protestants who went to the State school and the descendants of Irish Catholics who went to the convent.
The only non-Anglo Saxons in the town were the Greeks who ran the milk bar, a few Chinese of whom the most notable was Teddy Shai Hee, a photographer who rode around town on a bicycle, and an entrepreneurial Lebanese family named Moses who, given the prevailing Anglo-Saxon orthodoxy, quietly changed their name to Manning.
It is only in retrospect that I can recognise that Tumut in the 1950s (because we were to be transformed by the Snowy Mountains Scheme), was to be at the cutting edge of Australia's profound postwar changes.
By the time I was five or six, there were strange foreign men in the lounge and saloon at Yarrangobilly Caves House where we went most weekends.
By the time I was in fifth class a strange, and particularly good-looking, German, Horst Neumann, had arrived at Tumut Public School and was grappling with the idiosyncrasies of English.
And, perhaps most significantly, by the time I was a teenager I was working at weekends in a milk bar/delicatessen where, catering for the changing needs of the population, the owner was selling strange-smelling sausages with names like liverwurst and bratwurst and peculiar cheeses with holes in them. The days of brawn, devon and cheddar were disappearing.
It was around this time, shock, horror, that one of the local primary school teachers married one of these foreigners. Suddenly Miss Witherby became Mrs Markevics.
But the idea of Australia as an Anglo-Saxon society made up almost exclusively of the English, Scottish and Irish is deeply rooted.
My generation still tend to think of non-Anglo-Saxons as outsiders, visitors, itinerant aliens. Even though we love to go out and eat Italian, Vietnamese and Thai, and our preferences in liquids now tend more and more towards "real" coffee and a good wine, when we see large numbers of Asians, or are served by Asians in restaurants, we assume they are students rather than locals.
Now when I ask myself "Who is an Australian?" I think back to the Kells and the Webbs and the other Anglos in the Tumut valley in the 1950s and I also think of Horst, Johnny Markevics and all the immigrants who have been absorbed over the past 60 years.
We live in a largely successful and life-enforcing multicultural society, enriched by those who, for a million and one reasons, had the courage to travel halfway around the world and settle here. We need to escape from the old, narrow mindsets and embrace the positive forces unleashed by multiculturalism.
Countries like Australia are the new world. We are a huge experiment in how cultures can mix and blend. Our uniqueness, and our future, lies in our diversity.”
Tumut, NSW - Aussie Towns
Regardless of the season, Tumut is an exceptionally pretty country town. Nestled in a valley