PART I: AUSTRALIA
When anybody asks me how I passed my years, I usually tell them first that I spent 26 years working in daily journalism. This is not quite true: it was 26 years from my first job in 1945 to my last in 1971, but in between I did other things when journalism jobs were not available. I took quite a few long holidays, spent the better part of a year in India, as I have just recorded, and twice I worked briefly in factories --- one of my sons is already moaning, “Oh, no, he’s not going on about his factory work again, is he?” --- the first time for a month in Melbourne, Australia, the second in London, England. They provided interesting glimpses of contrasting national characteristics.
Having decided to go to India in 1950, we gave ourselves about six weeks to travel right round the continent of Australia to Fremantle on the west coast, where we took a ship to Bombay. That left us in Melbourne with a month to fill in, and we both went to the Labour Exchange to get some work to help with the finances. My job was in the Australian Jam Company, a huge factory whose jams and canned peaches certainly were famous across the southern part of the world. The labour-force there was almost entirely composed of immigrants, most of them recently arrived from Yugoslavia, and hardly any of them with more than the barest smattering of English.
The Australians working with or over them mistakenly called them Balts, which would indicate they came from the Baltic, whereas in fact they came from the Balkans at the other end of Europe. I got used to being asked, “Hi, mate. You one of us?” No, I would respond. “Where you from then, mate?” New Zealand, I would reply. “Oh, you’re one of us then.” In other words, I wasn’t a Balt.
I had become accustomed to Aussie racism from my six months in northern Queensland, where Italians originally were imported to be indentured labourers for work in the sugar-cane fields --- one of the toughest jobs one could imagine anyone doing. By dint of hard work and collective solidarity, these labourers had saved and scrimped until they had, by the time we arrived, managed to buy most of the farms, much to the bitter resentment of the more easy-going Australians. “Oh, the Eye-ties! They can live on the smell of an oily rag, they can,” was how they were usually dismissed.
But there were two prior victims of racism: no Aborigines, the original Australians, were ever seen in the town, although we knew that they were living in the district somewhere. (I found it sort of gratifying that half a century later in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, the Aussie poster-girl, flag-bearer and 400 metres champ should have been Cathy Freeman, who came from Mackay, the very town in question.)
And another race called Kanakas were occasionally seen around town, although none of them turned up in the school in which my wife, Shirley was a teacher. These people were part of the several thousand leftover from earlier racial experiments carried out when Australians went out into the Pacific Islands on so-called blackbirding expeditions, when, between 1863 and 1904, some 62,000 South Sea Islanders were (in the words of a report written in 1992) “forced, coerced, deceived or persuaded to leave their homes for Queensland,” where they were forced to sign, in most cases with thumbprints, since they could not read, three-year contracts, which paid them six pounds a year and rations, to work in the sugar fields, at a time when European workers were paid thirty pounds.
“The Queensland sugar industry was literally built on the backs of South Sea Islanders. Men, women and children had to work long hours in harsh conditions akin to slavery,” says the afore-mentioned report. When they finally decided to repatriate many of these South Sea Islanders, according to an article by Matt Novak, “many of the slavers simply dumped their charges at the nearest island, regardless of their island of origin. Sometimes, this was just indifference and laziness on the part of the blackbirders. Other times, they were afraid to return to the islands they’d plundered, worried that they would be attacked by enraged friends and families of the people they had kidnapped.” This is only a soupcon of the racism which has been endemic throughout the history of Australia, which was one reason we were not sorry to leave the country.
So I was not too surprised to find this dismissive attitude towards “the Balts” in the factory. Apart from that, I was impressed by the cheerful insouciance of the management who greeted us on arrival. A rough-looking diamond in an open-necked shirt, no jacket or tie, told us, “The wages are nine pounds three a week. Forty hours, no Saturdays, seven-thirty to four fifteen, overtime optional. Take off your coat and follow me.” I was working within minutes. I found out later he was the factory manager and everyone was rather in fear of him, but he’d treated me as one working man to another.
He was the guy who, at the end of my one-month stay, asked me if I would accept a promotion to a more responsible job. I was glad to tell him I was leaving. It was a tough job, either standing at the end of a line spewing out large cans of jam, to be picked off the line and placed on carts as they came at you --- woe betide you if you fell behind at any time --- or, and this was the most unpleasant part of the job, we had the task of taking a mobile vat across the room and tipping the boiling hot jam into a larger vat, getting splashed up and down our arms in the process. I returned home every night smelling of hot jam.
My other major memory of this job is that the Yugoslav workers were fanatically opposed to Communism. I remember one showing me where he had been stabbed through the hip by a bayonet. “I can Communismos,” he insisted. “You no can Communismos.”
I took him at his word.
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