I tend to specialise in the 18th century because it is a period when you can see the world changing, see how people coped with problems, overcame difficulties, often in strange and often very amusing or tragic ways. This tends to blind me to how much has changed in living memory. the following is from the Manchester Guardian Newspaper of 1952:
The Australian Whirligig
Australia has lately been host to writers of international repute. They have stayed long enough to be as bewildered as most Old Australians and New Australians (the local euphemism for immigrants) by what is happening. They have produced their several observations on the local malaise. Prognosis has not been difficult. Senor de Madariaga has expressed a witty and civilised dissent from Australian urbanisation, beer-swilling, trade-union-tyranny, and the gospel of good-enough. Miss Barbara Ward has blended Christian ethic and economic logic to show that Australia’s ills are due to inefficient secondary industries, a shortage of capital equipment, and a failure to draw wisdom through the soles of its feet from the good earth.
But neither has a diagnosis to explain why Australia is advancing quite so slowly in its ambitions to become both the Athens and the Arsenal of the Pacific. Exhortations on the one hand towards a better appreciation of home-grown vintage wines and on the other towards a more coherent structure of government are no more immediately helpful (to the average Australian) that the gnashing jollity of Mr. James A. Michener,of South Pacific fame, whose latest book also included a rediscovery of Australia. Mr Michener, more tolerant than those other American writers who have gone home to write in the pages of Fortune that the average Australian business man is a good golfer, paints a picture of a happy-go-lucky, rough-and-ready, likeable Australia that is probably damned, but delightfully so.
None of this impresses the Australian housewife or her husband, who has lately had to pay as much as 7d each for apples and oranges and 5d for bananas. the cheapest green vegetables in the suburban store, such as peas and beans, have been costing anything from 1s 6d to 4s a pound, according to fluctuations of supply. Milk is 7 1/2 a pint, small lamb chops 1s each, and other meat in proportion. This is inflation, of course, and the whirligig of inflation is not peculiar to Australia. But the pattern of price rises and labour shortages in Australia is unique because it registers so clearly, ironically, and at times humourously the ungainly vigour of a young country which refuses to be bedazzled by the whirligig.
Lacking the resources and population of the United States, Australia does not spread its economic stresses widely or evenly. A drought in Tasmania may produce a black market for potatoes in Queensland. One collier wrecked off the New South Wales coast may mean a gas shortage in South Australia. A fire in a Victorian cheese factory may impair the diet of a million Melbourne cheese-eaters, since production is already below local demand, after export contracts have been filled, and the slightest added strain will cause every Victoria cheese factory to release its stocks before they have matured. The rush to supply bacon to keep pace with the appetites of New Australians means that bacon rashers (at 6s 6d a pound) may be so hastily ‘cured’ that they will go rancid if kept for more than two or three days.
On the other hand an Australia which still takes it for granted that prodigal quantities of cheap, home-grown food are a national birthright has no system of subsidies on the British scale to assure the housewife of cheap, basic commodities. Subsidies to keep down the prices of tea and butter are exceptional, not typical. Subsidies in Australia have usually worked the other way. Even where local prices are no higher then export prices, the quality of the locally sold produce is inferior. Australia has become zealous abut maintaining standards on the overseas market, but the Australian housewife must fight her own battles. Thus in both the price an quality of food-stuffs the low-wage Australian household does not fare much better than its equivalent in Britain. At the present rate of deterioration it may soon fare rather worse.
Price controls were applied by the Federal Government during the war, but have since lapsed under the constitutional challenge. State Governments have taken over the powers, but have been remiss, lax, or haphazard in the use of them. When the price of onions was fixed in Victoria last year at 4 1/2d a pound, growers and agents shipped their produce to New South Wales, where there was a freer market. Not until the Victorian price soared to 1s 6d a pound did local housewives find any onions in their shops.
Meat prices are controlled,b but no more than nominally. To save face a Government inspector occasionally launches a prosecution, usually preferring, it seems, to select as his target a butcher with a foreign name, so that Anglo-Saxon honour can be vindicated. But since the culprit will be only moderately fined,and never gaoled, nobody is aggrieved – except the housewife. Butchers contend, with some truth, that if they charge fixed prices after being swindled by the wholesalers they would go bankrupt.
The sum of these anomalies, under the impact of each new inflationary spurt, has some curious results. High wages and full employment ensure that there is plenty of money to be spent on beer, tobacco, races, and cinemas, the costs of which have not increased by much more than 50 per cent in recent years. But a large percentage of wage-earners cannot afford, or is reluctant to indulge in, the luxury of foodstuffs which are three or four times dearer than they were. And these foods are mostly in the “protective” category, rich in vitamins and minerals. Australian doctors are quoted as reporting a lowered resistance to disease in the population, due to a deficiency of fresh fruit and green vegetables. Australia, once the vaunted larder of Empire, is well on the way to confessing incipient malnutrition at a time of maximum prosperity!
But if Australia is judged as a gawky, vigorous adolescent, still forced into ill-fitting clothes by those who variously tell him that he is no more than a child, or demand that he adopt a grown-up demeanour, the conclusion is rather different. The Australian worker, with his forty-hour, five-day week, £10 10s basic wage, and innumerable public holidays, emerges as a much more frugal, hard-working, and resourceful fellow than appearances suggest. Archaic assumptions enter into many facets of everyday life in a big Australian city such as Melbourne. the suburban postman may deliver the morning mail some time in the afternoon to a box nailed to the garden fence, in the tradition of colonial days when a farmer’s letter-box was at the point where his property joined a main road. dustbins must be placed out in the road, to be emptied into open carts, the overflowing contents of which the driver stamps down at intervals with his boots, cursing, subconsciously if not aloud, those householders who no longer burn or bury their own garbage in the backyard.
Public transport radiates almost entirely from the centre of the city, in homage to the days when the Town Hall was the hub of the universe. Even on through trams travellers are apt to be issued with another ticket at a point where the tram-route crosses the site of a blackfellow’s creek, now an underground drain, that was once a city boundary and a stage post for bullock wagons. Endless civic wrangling takes place over car-parking and comparatively simple subway and bridge projects because local authorities are still unintegrated and starved for funds by a Federal Government which now controls the purse strings but rejects responsibility.
In a more serious field, because of its social implications, te building and subsidising of low-rent houses, a function of local government in other countries, lags in Australia. the private investor has shied off building houses for rent, and at the back of the public mind is still the assumption that a truly resourceful Australian – the adjective is redundant – should be able to knock together a wooden frame cottage for himself and his family. and he does! Of the thirty thousand houses under construction in Victoria probably one-third are partly owner-built by individuals or “working-bee” clubs, with or without the help of subcontractors. Furniture dealers complain that their sales are being hit by the citizen who becomes an amateur cabinet maker in preference to spending a year’s wages on “handsome suites” of green wood and veneer. Before each of those public holidays for which Australia is notorious, hardware stores report bumper sales of paint and house fittings to householders who dedicate their leisure to those repairs and renovations which they cannot afford to have done at the tradesmen’s rates.
Patches of ground through the suburbs are furiously cultivated by citizens whose purses or gardens are far too small to provide them with enough vegetables. the roads are more cluttered than ever before with ancient jalopies, resuscitated by heaven-knows-what miracles of mechanical improvisation and a determination to beat Melbourne’s inadequate public transport system.
Needless to say, in the community which maintains itself by the trick of everyone’s becoming his own Robinson Crusoe and Man Friday to boot, the worker does not expend all his energies working for the boss and a wage with ever-dwindling capacity to sustain him according to his own traditional ideas of comfort. But to attribute laziness to the Australian who punches the clock at 5 p.m. to get back to his home workshop, and who hurries off every Friday evening to a long week-end of enormous voluntary toil, is to ignore the fact that the dividing line between work and leisure is becoming more and more ill-defined. And if the Australian worker toils harder for himself than for the boss it may be deplorable, but it is not always sloth. In a haywire economy the average Australian has devised an answer to the challenge of archaic government. It is a most virile answer.