Authors: Andrew Riemer
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Andrew Riemer is a well-known critic, academic and bestselling author, and is the
Sydney Morning Herald
chief book reviewer. He is the winner of several literary awards and he taught at Sydney University for many years. The experiences of his early years outside Australia form the basis of his award-winning memoir
Inside Outside: Life Between Two Worlds
. His other books include
A Family History of Smoking
Life Between Two Worlds
This edition published by Allen & Unwin House of Books in 2012
First published by Angus & Robertson, an imprint of HarperCollins
Publishers (Australia Pty Ltd) in 1992
Copyright Â© Andrew Riemer 1992
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publisher. The Australian
Copyright Act 1968
(the Act) allows a maximum of one chapter or 10 per cent of this book, whichever is the greater, to be photocopied by any educational institution for its educational purposes provided that the educational institution (or body that administers it) has given a remuneration notice to Copyright Agency Limited (CAL) under the Act.
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Nina, Tom and Nick
for each equally
If we shadows have offended
This is not an autobiography, but it is a book about the past and the present, generated by deeply personal memories and by the changes I have observed both within myself and in Australian society in the years since the end of the Second World War. It is a book, moreover, with several origins. One occurred on the day in 1947 when I arrived with my parents in Sydney. We were among the first of those waves of postwar European migrants who were to influence the nature of Australian society in various and at times unexpected ways.
Another occasion was almost exactly thirty years later, after my father's sudden death. I realised then that with him, and with my mother who had died three years earlier, many aspects of a family history, a mythology and a way of life had vanished beyond recovery. No-one remained to answer questions about the past or to untangle the complicated relationships of people who had died, often in terrible circumstances, more than thirty years before. I began jotting down vague and discontinuous memories partly for myself, but chiefly so that my sons might have some access to a strange and alien worldâwhich was nevertheless a part of their heritageâbefore age and the inevitable fading of memory caused more and more of it to disappear.
Those jottings, disjointed fragments of a remembrance of things past, stayed in a drawer of my desk for some years. They were brought to life, and given an entirely unexpected context, by the immediate circumstances that prompted me to write this book: the events of five days that were to prove crucial to my understanding of something that had become a continuing preoccupation. In 1990, a few days before Christmas, I returned to Budapest for the first time since I left it in 1946. The experience of those days in the city where I was born in 1936, the only child of entirely ordinary and unremarkable people who were to become victims of the great upheavals of the thirties and forties, helped to clarify the puzzles of personal and national identity that had governed and shaped much of my thinking about Australian culture, literature and society during the previous twenty years.
As I began to reassemble memories of a half-forgotten past in a city which was simultaneously familiar and entirely alien, I realised that such an act involved more than a private quest for a lost world. I came to understand that my present self was intimately tied to the influence which that place and that society had exerted on me, even though I had grown up among âOld' Australians, people whose language, customs and social forms I had adopted so thoroughly that I felt alien and out-of-place in Hungary, that landlocked European country which I should have been able to call âhome'. I also realised, as I wandered through the grimy streets, that my private journey of rediscovery and ghost-laying had implications for an understanding of Australian society at the end of a troubled century, a time when the seeds sown by the postwar government's policies of mass-migration were bearing fruit in a manner that the people who had shaped those policies may not have anticipated. This book is the result of that realisation.
When I arrived in Australia in 1947, a few days before my eleventh birthday, the question of multiculturalism had not yet arisen. Everyone assumed that it was the newcomer's duty to fit in, to learn the language, to adopt the customs of the country. Whatever cultural heritage you had brought with you had to be discarded; the past was irrelevant to the new life you were about to forge. With ominous symbolism, the only items from my parents' luggage to be seized by His Majesty's Customs were half a dozen or so decorated wooden platters, garish examples of Hungarian folk art. Now, almost half a century later, the wheel has turned. The dream of a multicultural Australia, a heady brew of contrasted but harmonious cultural strands, has left those of us who listened to our mentors, and tried to assimilate, in some perplexity and confusion.
I have now spent more than three-quarters of my life in this country. My passport tells me that I am an Australian. This is the only society where I feel relatively at ease, safe and comfortable. I depend on it not merely for a livelihood and occupation, but, much more importantly, for the essential and life-sustaining structures of family and friendships. Whenever I am away from Australia, my thoughts turn towards home. Yet I cannot claim to belong here fully. There is a state of mind beyond fondness, or even love, for a country, beyond familiarity or the knowledge that you have carved out a life for yourself in these surroundings. That state of mind is indefinable. To say that it is a lack or a vacancy is an approximation approaching the truth, yet not quite touching it. Nor is it a matter of substitutions: I yearn for Europe, but it is a Europe that no longer exists, and may never have existed. The closest I can get to a description of this condition, dilemma, perplexity, or whatever term may be put upon it, is to say that it is an existence between two worlds: one familiar, substantial, often humdrum and commonplace; the other a country of the mind, fashioned from powerful longings and fantasies. Such longings and fantasies are the products of a complicated network where experience and inheritance intersect.
Perhaps I am merely describing the human condition. I have come to learn that this sense of displacement, of not belonging, even of having been uprooted, is shared by many people whose lives have not been so obviously displaced or uprooted as mine. And yet, as every migrant knows, being obliged to start again, to find that you must remake your life, brings that predicament into sharper focus than might be the case otherwise. To look back at the slow unfolding which began for me on a hot February morning in 1947 is to raise many ghosts, most of which would have been better left undisturbed. It also runs the risk of self-pity and a yearning after the might-have-been. At worst it may seem mere self-indulgence. But the process of learning about and assimilating into an adopted society may, if viewed without rancour or passion, reveal something essential about that society, its values and its problems, which are often seen with greater clarity by the newcomer. Reconstructing that vision many years after the fact entails an alteration of perspective. I am able to look at the past only from the vantage point of my present self. Yet the memory retains enough of those initial impressions, and the present self bears sufficient scars from the past, to make it possible to capture with some accuracy and truth the predicament of those of us who were received by a not entirely welcoming Australia in the years immediately following the war in Europe.
It is only too easy, from the perspective of the much more cosmopolitan society of contemporary Australia, to scoff at the smugly bigoted attitudes of that time. Australia of the immediate postwar years was a narrow, inward-looking society, convinced of its absolute superiority, contemptuous of anything foreign or out of the ordinary. Wherever you went in that low and sunbaked collection of villages called Sydney, you were shown the living and visible proof of that superiority. An incident recorded by Glenda Adams in
is echoed by my own experience: the AWA tower, which in those days dominated the city's skyline, was hailed as an astonishing example of engineering and architectural skill. The Harbour Bridge was, of course, the longest single arch suspension bridge in the world. And there were other marvelsâthe world's longest stretch of straight railway-track; the Burrinjuck dam, unique in the world, or was it in the Southern Hemisphere? âIsn't this the most wonderful country on earth?' people in the streets would say to you, without a hint of self-consciousness or irony. In some ways they were justified; though, in retrospect, it strikes me as entirely characteristic that these litanies rarely if ever included natural marvels. Many years were to pass before we became aware that there were, indeed, wonders to behold, though not of the man-made sort.
In this cultural and moral climate, my parents and I embarked on the task of assimilating. For some of us the task was easier than for others. Naturally I, as an eleven-year-old, experienced less difficulty than my middle-aged parents. They, in turn, came closer to being absorbed into Australian society than many of their contemporaries, largely because circumstances forced us to live away from those Central European enclaves which were already in existence by the early fifties. But the attempt was ultimately futileâthough its futility did not come home to us for very many years. Intrinsically, full assimilation is impossible. At the simplest level, there is nothing you can do about your physical features, no matter how many unconscious fantasies you might entertain about becoming truly Australian. Being Australian, then as now, meant possessing the physical characteristics of people whose forbears came from the British Isles. I became aware of that truth with particular poignancy when I returned to Budapest, the city of my birth, after an absence of more than forty years. My first reaction as I got out of the train and began walking along a noisy, crowded platformâa scene that conjured up the look, indeed the smell of the Balkansâwas amazement at seeing all those funny little people milling around me. It took more than a moment's reflection to realise, with a mixture of shame and distress, that I am one of those funny little people.