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Thursday, 5 January 2012

THE WORLD (and The Smiths) IN 1959

Ben Smith - author or NO TIME FOR THE SMITHS sets the scene for his remarkable memoir of the first year of his marriage. This extract - the start of a talk on the book - describes how the world was then.

Well, it's not often that a book you wrote fifty years ago gets up but this one did.

Fifty-four years ago, I was a gormless young 21-year old who'd just married a divorced woman nine years older than I was.  We had no money, so all we could afford to rent was a shack in the backblocks of Avalon - 26 miles from where we worked in Sydney. And, as she freely admitted, I was being cradle-snatched. Because, after one bad marriage, she was desperate to settle down and breed.

And we were destitute. She couldn't even afford bed sheets. And all I owned was a rickety car the same age as I was - a side valve Morris Minor that broke down or burst into flames the moment you went near it.

Rina worked in town and I worked as a studiohand or scene-shifter at Channel 2, Gore Hill. Both jobs were a long way from Avalon when you had an unpredictable car.

In other words, the whole set-up was so impractical, it left us with no time to scratch ourselves. Hence - NO TIME FOR THE SMITHS - the account of an impossible first year of marriage.

Remember, things were very different fifty years ago. So just to jog the mind - let's set the scene a little:


It was before the Vietnam war and the Berlin Wall. DNA and the laser still hadn't been discovered but a Soviet rocket had just crashed into the moon.

The Dali Lama was fleeing Tibet. Castro had taken over Cuba. Kennedy was not yet president. And there was terror about the prospect of a future nuclear war.

The new inventions were the hovercraft, the synthesiser and stereo recording. And computers were still only to be found in university science departments. 

A Catholic synod decreed that women wearing men's clothes or with uncovered arms were unworthy of the sacrament. And the Archbishop of Canterbury wanted adultery made a criminal offence.

The first kidney transplant had just been done and the BMA had finally decided that smoking caused lung cancer.

Grace Kelly had became a princess. Princess Margaret was marrying a commoner. Elvis was drafted and Buddy Holly, Bogart and James Dean died.

The films were High Society, The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur. The musical was My Fair Lady. Harold Pinter had just written The Caretaker and Jaques Tati was starring in Mon Oncle.

Martin Luther King was stabbed and Alec Guinness knighted.  Donald Campbell set a world speed record and the first Mini Minor appeared.

Cassius Clay had begun his career, but, in Lousiana, mixed race boxing matches were banned. And in Alabama, a children's book was withdrawn because it showed a black rabbit marrying a white one.

So that was the international scene. 
But how was it fifty years ago in Australia?


Well, our population was ten million - including one million post-war migrants.

There were just two million cars in the country. And a Holden Station Wagon cost 995 pounds.

A Victor mower would set you back 49 guineas or seven shillings a week. This at a time when the average home - cost around 6 thousand pounds.

A Four-and-Twenty pie cost one shilling and a public phone call four pennies.

Banks had a new product called saving accounts. Medicines were no longer free. Prescriptions now cost five shillings. The contraceptive pill had been invented but was not yet available.

Sydney's biggest building had just gone up - the fifteen story MLC office in North Sydney. And a foreigner called Utzon had just won a design competition for an Opera House.

In Victoria, Menzies, in his fifth term, had just opened the Myer Music Bowl. And Bolte had opened the Eildon Dam - then the biggest water storage in the Southern Hemisphere.

Lake Eucumbene, the Warragamba Dam and the Snowy Mountains Scheme were still being completed.

Reg Ansett had bought ANA. The first Qantas jet had arrived - a Boeing 707. They were talking about building a new Melbourne airport to be called Tullamarine.

Coastal steamers still plied between our major cities, and the Oriana, then a huge vessel of 42,000 tons, was the biggest passenger ship to ever visit this country.

We had compulsory National Service and Aborigines had no vote.
The ALP had just agreed to maintain the White Australia Policy.

Off-course betting was illegal.
Criminals could still be sentenced to a lashing.


Well, society was pretty straight.

The customs department banned Lady Chatterley's Lover, and The Catcher in the Rye. The government also suspected that asbestos might be dangerous.

On Anzac Day, hotels and theatres were closed and sporting fixtures cancelled.

The new bikini was creating a stir on Bondi beach. To wear one was classified by the police as 'offensive behaviour'.

In fact, Judge Adrian Curlewis, head of the Surf Lifesaving Association, condemned it as destroying the beauty of the female form.

Then, sport. You'll remember Ken Rosewall, Lew Hoad, Dawn Frazer, the Konrads, Betty Cuthbert.

We loved Graham Kennedy and were impressed with the overseas acclaim for Robert Helpman and the young Joan Sutherland.

We ate up our Jatz and Aeroplane jelly and went to the Billy  Graham crusades.

This was the time of the cold war. There were waterfront strikes, migrant camps, a credit crunch, and mounting unemployment. 


TV had just started in Australia and although an AWA 21" receiver cost 225 guineas, suburban picture theatres began to feel the pinch and, one by one, started to close.

The new medium was despised, particularly by the film community. And the great days of radio still lingered. Remember  Yes What? When a Girl Marries?  Mrs Obbs? Blue Hills. Take it From Here? In fact Grace Gibson continued to make radio drama well into the 1960s, because she firmly believe in it. Overseas sales of Australian radio serials brought in an incredible 1 million a year.     

TV was the shock of the new, just as the internet is now. Perhaps to mark the transition, the brilliant Jack Davey had just died. And so had Errol Flynn. 

Yes we had videotape in those days - two inches wide - and the only way to edit it was to cut it on the diagonal with a scalpel. There was telecine or film to video - but you were only allowed ten minutes of that per broadcast hour. So the plays and ballets and operas we did were live productions with very little recorded footage interspersed.

The great actors of the day were making the transition. They were often too theatrical for the small screen and had to learn to underplay which some found that hard. The big names then were Brian James, Neva Carr Glynn, Jacqueline Kott, John Ewart, Alistair Duncan, Gwen Plumb, John Mellion, Nigel Lovell and so on.... A lot of them are dead now. Back then, they were stars.

A young Jeffrey Smart had an art segment on the Children's hour. Quite a contrast with the international icon he is now.

On Six O'Clock Rock the ever hoarse Johnny O'Keefe, with the help of a mike, somehow retained enough voice to get through each show.

The ever charming and beautiful Pat Lovell, was Miss Pat - Mr Squiggle's side-kick. Obviously years before her triumph with Picnic at Hanging Rock.

Lorrae Desmond was slinky then, too. And starred in her own show with Colin Croft.


Back to the gormless young studio hand and his impoverished lady love. They had decided to get hitched in the Sydney Registry Office. It was next to the Sydney Law Courts where couples were less speedily divorced. It had signs on the walls - DO NOT SPIT.  DO NOT THROW CONFETTI. The only thing you could do in there was say I DO.

Of course we should have rented some squalid flat near our jobs. But that didn't appeal at all.

We were romantics who saw life as a great and beneficent quest. So we rented a shack endless miles from where we needed to be each day.

Remember, this was a time of bad roads and worse cars. A time so rudimentary that trees still outnumbered road signs.

Rina was the technical information clerk for a small pharmaceutical company and earned four pounds ten shillings a week. And my studiohand job earned me considerably less.

Avalon, then, was almost the country - a small village on the way to the semi-weekend resort of Palm Beach. Yes, the movie theatre was there. And a news agent. And a small gift shop and greengrocer. Not much else.

The Peninsula was a place dreaming in the sun - a haven for retirees or the leisured rich.

Koalas nestled in the trees. Bandicoots attacked the rubbish bins. Black snakes basked in the sun. Ticks and fleas and sand flies held festivals on anything that moved and possums nested in roofs and piddled on the ceilings. The sewerage system hadn't reached the shack we were to live in for a year. It had a thing called a Dissolvinator - a kind of drum with a toilet on top, and to make your body's waste disappear, you pumped the toilet lid up and down which caused a cone like cylinder to revolve. And as it's speed slowly increased, centrifugal force conveyed your contribution to the cooking mess below.

All of this we found charming - for about three days. Because, for people with a broken down car, and one partner on shift work, Avalon, as a commuter suburb, was definitely a place too far.

Not only that. The shack was almost sublimely impractical. The roof leaked. No washing machine. Just a copper you had to build a wood fire under, a hot water system that wasn't. And so it went. Nothing worked and everything took an age to accomplish.

So No Time for the Smiths is Australian folk history in the raw.

No Time for the Smiths is published by Ginninderra Press, Adelaide and also as an eBook by Buzzword Books at just 3.99. If you'd like to know more about Ben's much loved memoir, click on: No Time for the Smiths

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