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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.