Speech delivered at the Australia Day 2013 School Assembly
Ms J Colwill, Creative Arts Faculty
The tradition of noting the 26th of January began early in the nineteenth century and refers to The First Landing Day or Foundation Day.
This was the day in 1788 when Captain Arthur Phillip arrived at Sydney Cove to raise the Union Jack as a symbol of the British occupation of the eastern half of the continent. Prosperous immigrants in Sydney, especially those who had been convicts or the sons of convicts, began marking the colony’s beginnings with an anniversary dinner to celebrate their love of the land that they lived in. People have continued to migrate to Australia ever since. This is the story of one of them.
Beryl was born in London on 29th April 1926.
World War II started in 1939 when Beryl was 13 years old. As you can imagine, this was a time of great anxiety and, due to the close proximity of the continent to England, the threat of invasion was ever present.
Many stories circulated among the civilian population about the atrocities perpetrated by an invading army. Beryl’s mother told her that she had had visions of the German Army coming over the hill at the back of the house, and advised Beryl that, should this happen, she would be forced to shoot all the children beforehand. This scenario never eventuated, but you can imagine the terrors engendered by such a statement.
In time and as the war progressed, Beryl joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), the women’s branch of the army. There were opportunities for leave from her post, so she and a girlfriend decided to go south to Plymouth. Plymouth as a naval port had sustained very heavy damage during bombing raids and the whole centre of the city was rubble. But Plymouth was also home to the Navy, Army and Air Force Institution. Most importantly, for two young women on leave, there was also a club and dance hall for service personnel.
The two friends went to a dance where, unbeknown to her, Beryl was noticed by two Australian sailors. Apparently, the boys decided to toss a coin to see who would get to ask her to dance. Despite the fall of the coin, the loser refused to accept the situation so he and his mate went outside for a fight to decide the ultimate winner. The victor was Trevior. He and Beryl were both 19.
Beryl invited Trevior to visit her when he was on leave in London. Despite the burgeoning romance, the war persisted leaving few opportunities for any real relationship. Finally, the war in Europe came to an end and Trevior was ordered to return to Australia. Beryl was sad to see him go, but during war time goodbyes were commonplace. As Trevior was returning to Australia, Beryl felt she would never see him again.
Beryl continued to serve in the ATS and assist in the long, slow efforts to rebuild life as the English had known it before the war. Many service personnel from around the world remained in London and, despite the ongoing hardships, there were many opportunities for socialising at dances like the one where she had met Trevior.
Then Beryl received a cable from Trevior stating briefly, ‘Make wedding preparations, arriving in so many weeks.’ She was shocked. She remembered having a very casual discussion with Trevior on the topic of marriage, which was soon put aside due to the inevitability of his return to Australia.
Trevior, however, had his English girlfriend very much on his mind, despite his family’s disapproval of this very brief relationship with a woman living many thousands of miles away. Determined, he managed to get himself transferred to a ship bringing a contingent of service personnel back to London to march in the Victory March.
As he was to be there for only a month, he needed to act quickly in trying to convince Beryl to marry him. It took a lot of talking, but she finally agreed. Unsurprisingly, her mother was not keen as Beryl was under the legal age to marry. A long series of negotiations followed culminating in her mother’s signed permission — but also the words, ‘I want you to leave this house tomorrow and never come back.’ This marriage between two young people who barely knew one another and lived on opposite sides of the world was to cost Beryl a great deal.
The couple were married in a registry office in London, Beryl wearing borrowed clothes as she had little clothing other than her services uniform.
They honeymooned in a crowded house with friends, as accommodation was very difficult to find. Shortly afterwards, Trevior had to sail back to Australia. Beryl decided to attempt to reconcile with her mother, as she knew that soon she would be leaving England to be reunited with her husband in Australia to begin a very uncertain future. More significantly, she found herself to be pregnant.
Almost 50,000 women came to Australia during the twentieth century because they fell in love with an Australian serviceman in a time of war.
Beryl left England with a white embroidered tablecloth that her mother had given her from her sideboard drawer and 40 pounds pinned to the inside of her bra. She felt nothing but sadness at what she was leaving behind. War causes so many heartaches, and a longing for the land of her birth would never completely leave her.
Beryl arrived in Australia in November 1946. She was a young mother with virtually no support in a hostile environment. She had to learn to cope in the heat of Australia with a premature baby, very little money and completely inexperienced in homemaking and motherhood. Family life and a normal adolescence as we know it did not exist for her growing up during a war. She had no role models to measure herself against — no knowledge of how to care for a baby or how to be supportive of a similarly young and inexperienced husband trying to find what little work was available or create a viable home life.
Accommodation was scarce and the young couple started their married life in a shared house. While Trevior left to find work, Beryl found herself physically abused by a tyrannical landlady who terrorised her and the other occupants, forbidding others to speak to her and locking out tenants that she disliked.
The couple left to share the same house as Trevior’s parents. Here, she was to find out how much her mother-in-law disliked her. She was referred to as a ‘Dirty Pom’, asked how often she washed and compared unfavourably with an ex-girlfriend of Trevior’s who his mother had hoped he would marry.
Trevior was then given the opportunity to go to the Antarctic for twelve months as a weather observer on an early expedition. Conditions on Macquarie Island in those days were very primitive. The families of the men had very little and limited communication. They were only able to use codes, for example, ‘xyz’ meant ‘uncle is well’ and ‘abc’ meant ‘I love you’. The messages were read by all at the destination, so any intimacy was impossible. Beryl returned to England with her young son.
Beryl and Trevior’s story does not, of course, end there, but the tale so far does create a picture of the lives of two young people coming together despite extreme hardship and distance, both physical and emotional.
It also says something about the immigrant experience. Migrants coming to Australia under any circumstances must experience a complex process of cultural adaptation if they are to establish a new life in Australia. This adaptation may involve obtaining employment, housing, health care, and child care; learning English, if necessary; linking into a social support network; and having qualifications assessed.
Most significantly, they must take on the ‘cultural’ tasks of becoming familiar with dominant Australian values and customs. The new Australian must accept the shared meanings, values and practices of a culture, and adjust to new and changing circumstances. This is as challenging now as it was for Beryl then, and she had the advantage of a shared language and the support of a husband.
Contemporary Australian cultural identity may be defined as the right of all Australians, within carefully defined limits, to express and share their individual cultural heritage, including their language and religion (Burnett, 2009). Our understanding of social justice defines the right of all Australians to equality of treatment and opportunity, and the removal of barriers of race, ethnicity, and culture (Burnett, 2009).
Our celebration of Australia Day is a good opportunity to reflect on this.
The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (cited in MyJewishLearning.com, n.d.) states that reason lives in language and that we communicate with others even before we start to speak. Whenever you look into the face of another person the fact that this is another human being and that I have a responsibility for them is instantly communicated. I can turn away from this responsibility but I cannot escape it. Nothing else in our lives so disrupts our consciousness as an encounter with another person, who simply by being there calls to us and asks us to account for ourselves.
If we go back to the beginnings of the celebration of Australia Day, we must acknowledge that, apart from our indigenous population, we are a nation of immigrants and that, in celebrating our love of the land that we live in, we recognize a commonality between ourselves and all those who come to our shores as new Australians. We look into their faces and speak to them as they speak to us.
And, yes, Beryl and Trevior are my mother and father.
Burnett, L. (2009). Issues in immigrant settlement in Australia. Sydney: National Centre for English Language Teaching and Research, Macquarie University.
MyJewishLearning.com. (n.d). Responsibility in the face of the other. Retrieved December 23, 2012, from www.myjewishlearning.com/beliefs/Theology/Thinkers__and_Thought/Jewish_Philosophy/Philosophies/Modern/Emmanuel_Levinas/The_Face_of_the_Other.shtml