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No Job for a Woman
By Sallyanne Atkinson
University of Queensland PressCopyright © 2016 Sallyanne Atkinson
All rights reserved.
AN ITINERANT CHILDHOOD
I was born in the middle of a cold Sydney winter right in the middle of World War II. Two months earlier the battle of the Coral Sea had been fought off the coast of Queensland. Weeks earlier, Japanese submarines had been detected in Sydney Harbour. Two days before I was born the Japanese had landed in Papua to be eventually repulsed along the Kokoda Track. On the very day I was born US general Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander of the South-West Pacific, arrived in Brisbane, having relocated his headquarters from Melbourne to be closer to the action.
My parents had met in glamorous circumstances in the exotic city that was Colombo in the 1930s. My mother, Ruth, whose maiden name was Helmore, was a beautiful girl of 17, sophisticated beyond her years and making her first trip overseas from her home in Sydney. She had been sent to Colombo to stay with her aunt and uncle, possibly in the hope that she would marry an eligible bachelor. My father, Charles Terence (Terry) Kerr, was handsome, almost twice her age and divorced, an accountant with a Belfast company that made machinery for the tea industry of Ceylon. He had spent much of his youth in Colombo and cut a dash in the fast-moving expatriate community.
When he met the very pretty Ruth, he assumed that she was at least 25, 'or I wouldn't have looked at her'. Ruth returned to Sydney and they wrote to each other over the next two years. He proposed and they were married on April Fool's Day 1939: the groom was 37, the bride 19. The wedding took place at St Stephen's Presbyterian Church in Macquarie Street, Sydney. My mother's wedding dress was the most beautiful I have ever seen, in a silvery crepe material it was high-necked and long-sleeved, and fitted her like a sheath. My mother, and probably her mother, would have preferred St Mark's Anglican Church at Darling Point, the most fashionable church in Sydney, but the Church of England did not accept divorcees. My mother's only brother, Norman, was best man. The bridegroom had no supporters of his own.
After the wedding Mr and Mrs Terry Kerr set off on a round-the-world honeymoon. Photographs show them in Suva, Fiji and in Banff, Canada. They sent postcards from every port of call. Finally they arrived in Belfast, where Mum was to meet her new in-laws, and most importantly her seven-year-old stepdaughter Jill.
Dad's first marriage had been something of an accident. In his twenties he had been engaged to a Miss Shimmons in Belfast, the city of his birth. Where they had actually met we don't know, but shortly before the wedding Miss Shimmons called it off. Dad took the next ship back to Colombo. Not long afterwards, Miss Shimmons' sister, Hylda, went out to Ceylon and married the cast-off groom.
It was not a happy marriage. Their daughter, Jill, was born in 1932 and it was while she was pregnant that Hylda fell properly in love. Or rather improperly – Jill later told me that her mother had been six months pregnant and at a dinner party when she looked across the table and fell in love with the man opposite, one of Terry's friends.
Because Hylda had left Dad and he was the wronged party, he had gained custody of Jill. Jill had gone to live with him in Colombo but soon after her seventh birthday, and a few months before Terry came to Sydney to marry again, she was despatched by ship, in the company of a woman she didn't know, to Dad's family in Belfast. At the end of her life Jill remembered her mother standing on the dock in Colombo screaming, 'Don't take my baby!'
All her life my mother was critical of my father for having taken Jill from her mother, and then abandoning her, despite the fact that Mum was partly the cause of it. However, it was standard practice at the time for young children from India and Ceylon to be sent 'home' to relatives or boarding school; the climate of the East was held to be detrimental to their health and development.
Jill went to Belfast and was subsequently sent to Penrhos, a boarding school in Colwyn Bay, Wales. During Easter 1940 she was on one of two ships that crossed from Holyhead to Belfast. One was torpedoed by the Germans and sunk with total loss of life, and Jill was on the other. Not surprisingly, she didn't return to school in Wales, and spent the rest of the war living with first her grandmother in Belfast and then with our father's sister, Eva, and her family in Sligo. She did not see her father again until the war was over.
Jill was a truly tragic victim of divorce. Her mother married and went to live in New Guinea, and Jill did not see her again until 1949 – and then only by accident, via a customer in the shop where she worked. Only then did Jill discover that her mother had written to her in Ireland, but our grandmother had kept the letters from her, leaving Jill to think she had been forgotten.
After their honeymoon my parents settled in Colombo. But then came war and Mum was evacuated on the last ship to leave before the fall of Singapore in February 1942. She was pregnant with me at the time; I discovered later that I was a replacement baby. A son, Michael, had been born in February 1941 but had died when he was three days old. He had been delivered by forceps and my mother always blamed Colombo medicine for negligence.
Michael's death was one of the reasons Mum decided to have her next baby in Sydney, and in the end she had no choice. She arrived unannounced on her parents' doorstep in the Sydney suburb of Neutral Bay after the vessel had dodged enemy fire all the way across the Indian Ocean. We were always told that she sat on that doorstep heavily pregnant, waiting for her mother to come home. Only when I was grown up did I realise that she had been only five months pregnant: not exactly heavily. Such are the myths of childhood.
My father enlisted with his friends and other left-behind husbands in the Ceylon Planters Rifle Corps, and he might or might not have spent the war marching up and down the Galle Face Green, that long park on Colombo's seafront, and drinking pink gins. Mum was always very dismissive of his war service, but years later when I was given the honour of the Freedom of the City of Colombo, the mayor announced, 'The highest regards of our nation to your late father for his dedicated service to save our country from the perils of World War Two.' Ceylon was indeed bombed by the Japanese.
Sydney during the war was an exciting place, a heady mix of tension and the frenzied atmosphere generated by American and Australian troops on leave from the war zone and determined to have a good time. After my birth, my mother, just 22 and very pretty, safely married and with ready-made babysitters, had, I think, a very good war. She never said that, and perhaps I am just drawing conclusions, but my favourite toy as a small child was a koala called Fritz after the American soldier who gave it to me.
One of the few regrets of my life is that I never asked either of my parents about their courtship and marriage. Two years is quite a long time in the life of a young woman and their only contact had been through letters. Had he changed? Had she? I would have expected that the young woman who met her fiancé on the wharf in Sydney in March 1939 might have been rather different from the one who waved him goodbye in Colombo Harbour back in 1937.
Through most of my childhood I felt that my mother was a disappointed woman whose life had never fulfilled its early promise. Because of the Depression she had had to leave her Sydney school, Ascham, at the age of 14, something about which she was very bitter, and the reason for her determination that her own daughters would have a full education. She coped well with the changed circumstances that had her settle for most of her married life in a small Australian town, a long way from the glamour she had signed up for. She didn't criticise my father, whose circumstances were beyond his control. But as a little girl I was sensitive to her small barbs. And my father, who had already lost one wife, would not risk losing another, so was never sharp in return. In her low moments as I was growing up, my mother would say that her mother had forced her into the marriage. But her father, my grandfather, told me they had tried to talk her out of it but she was 'madly in love'.
This is not to say it was an uncomfortable marriage for us children. There was lots of affection and endearments. But I for one somehow felt this was not how an ideal marriage should be.
I remember my father as a kind and happy man, but one who wasn't very influential in my early years. It was Mum who determined the pace and content of our daily lives. She made the rules and set the standards, and consequently was a stronger influence. I really only got to know my father in the last few years of his life. He was diagnosed with a congenital heart defect at the age of 72, had an aortic valve replacement, and died of cancer of the larynx at 78. In those years, having treatment in Brisbane, he stayed with me and my family at Indooroopilly and for the first time told me about his early life and first marriage. I remember being surprised, because he had never said so, that he was proud of what I had achieved. When I was campaigning for Council in semi-rural Brookfield and Moggill he would say to the old farmers, 'You really should vote for this girl, she's very clever.'
My father told me that one of his strongest childhood memories had been the building of the Titanic in Belfast shipyards and its subsequent sinking. He kept an interest in the Titanic all of his life. At his funeral we sang 'Nearer my God to Thee', the hymn the band was playing as the ship sank. And though Belfast was strongly sectarian in his Protestant youth, I never knew Dad to go to church except for special events, including my wedding. When I married in the Catholic church he said as we stood at the door: 'Did you feel the ground rumble? That's my ancestors turning in their graves.'
Those ancestors had been lowland Scots who had settled in Northern Ireland in the seventeenth century, taking with them the Scottish love of travel. Grandpa Charles Kerr with his wife, May, and their three children, did a lot of toing-and-froing between Colombo and Belfast. Grandpa Kerr went out to Ceylon as a young man and made a name for himself photographing local dignitaries. The eldest and youngest brothers in his family of 11 went to Japan. The youngest, John Henry, married a Japanese woman and had a daughter, Mariette. They tried to go back to Britain at the start of World War I but he died en route in India and his widow and daughter were subsequently interned there.
Dad spent much of his childhood in Belfast, where he sang in the cathedral choir and later played cricket for Ulster. Good with figures, he went to work in the office of Belfast engineering firm Davidson & Co., who sent him back to Colombo.
My mother's family originated from Devon on the English south coast. My grandfather used to tell us that their name, Helmore, had been invented when the daughter of the man at the helm of the boat had married the man on the oar. Or perhaps it was the other way around. The Helmores were travellers, too. As a young man my great-grandfather, Thomas, had gone to America to work on rebuilding Chicago after the great fire of 1871. Afterwards, work dried up and he went to San Francisco where he met Ella Spaulding. When he decided to try his luck in Australia, she followed him and they were married.
Great-grandfather Helmore worked in the building trade all his life, which ended tragically and early. He had gone guarantor in business for a Mason friend, who then disappeared leaving Thomas to face the bailiffs. The family folklore had him dying of pneumonia, brought on by a broken heart, but his death certificate states that he died from 'cyanide of potash, self-administered, on Manly Beach'. He was 49.
Ella, a lone American in New South Wales, was left with eight children, the youngest just six. The three eldest girls, aged 17, 16 and 15, went out to work, as did the eldest boy. My grandfather, Will, aged nine, was taken in and educated by the rector of Christ Church St Laurence in Sydney, which gave him a lifelong love of both learning and the church. Each of these children lived to a great age, and all settled in Sydney or on the New South Wales south coast and kept in touch with each other. Their father was buried in a Presbyterian church cemetery and suicide was never mentioned in the family.
Will married Nell Davidson in 1913. My grandmother's family had come to Australia from Stonehaven in Scotland, where her father had been a stonemason. He was obviously successful because they lived in a solid two-storey house in Sydney's Paddington, which had been a middle-class suburb at the turn of the twentieth century. When I was growing up in the 1950s, Paddington was a slum and my grandmother used to say, 'Don't ever tell anyone that your grandmother grew up in Paddington.'
I like to think that I have inherited resilience from my American great-grandmother and a degree of restlessness from the wandering Kerrs. My strongest memory of my grandmother is that she was great fun and a constant source of stories about her Sydney girlhood. She used to tell us tales of the Paddington streets, of the rag-and-bone man to whom she inadvertently sold her mother's silver teapot. She told us how she would come home from school to find her drunken mother sitting on the front steps and had to cope, a story hotly denied by her son, my mother's only brother, Norman. In one of my favourite stories, she was walking down Martin Place in Sydney when the elastic broke in her knickers, and she simply stepped out of them and left them there.
My grandmother was very much her own person. For one thing, she had changed her name by deed poll in her twenties because she didn't like her birth name, Nell. Henceforth she was to be known as Helen, far more modern, and when grandchildren came along she was to be called Helen and never Grandma. She never admitted she was six years older than her husband.
Often it's easier for children to communicate with a generation once removed. It was my grandmother who talked to me about sex. A school friend from the outback had explained to me the mating habits of sheep and cattle and I said, 'My parents would never do anything so disgusting!' Helen gave me a much better picture of the facts of life.
My paternal grandparents have no shape in my memory, but I have a very clear picture of Mum's parents – Helen was short and plump, Will was tall and thin. From him and my mother I have brown eyes in a family whose members' eyes are mainly blue. His theory was that sailors of the sixteenth-century Spanish Armada washed ashore in Devon, married the local girls and created a long line of dark-eyed descendants.
By 1944 fighting was concentrated in the Pacific and Mum and I were able to cross the Indian Ocean to rejoin Dad in Colombo. It was still a hazardous voyage and it was not easy to get passage on a ship from wartime Australia, although family reunions must have taken some priority. My father had not been on active war service, though potential invasion must have been stressful.
At 22 months of age I met my father for the first time. Has there ever been any research on the thousands of children of my generation who didn't know their fathers in their early childhood? If those very early years are definitive in the formation of later character and personality, a whole generation has suffered from paternal deprivation. One of my friends remembers her father coming home, a strange man in uniform, and her screaming in terror every time she saw him. For the men coming home from war, family life must have been an uncomfortable experience.
In Colombo, once the danger of invasion had passed, life continued much as it had before. These were the dying days of the British Raj in India, but most of the Europeans in Ceylon were only vaguely aware of the rumblings of discontent. For my mother, it was a return to the life she had first experienced in 1937 – grand colonial bungalows, servants and a busy social program to fill the leisure time that servants enabled. There were clubs for Europeans only – the Garden Club, the Prince's Club, the Colombo Swimming Club – race meetings and polo matches.
Excerpted from No Job for a Woman by Sallyanne Atkinson. Copyright © 2016 Sallyanne Atkinson. Excerpted by permission of University of Queensland Press.
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Table of Contents
An Itinerant Childhood 4
The Colonial Experience 19
Not Yet the Gold Coast 31
Swimming Upstream 39
Something to Fall Back On 45
The Swinging Sixties 66
The Scottish 'bean Club' 78
The Juggling Act 90
An Accidental Politician 99
Looking at Life Through a Municipal Drainpipe 128
I'll Take City Hall 142
More than Roads, Rates and Rubbish 157
The Second Time Around 167
This Sporting Life 184
An Unexpected Loss 196
Leaping Over the Precipice 216
Brisbane is Not Paris 231
Finding Something Useful to Do 245
A Bend in the River 261