Before I Forget By Geoffrey Blainey

Here are some highlights from this 2019 memoir by the great Australian historian:

* When I was old enough to read the handwritten labels on the jam, I realised, to my amazement, the existence of adults who could not spell.

[LF: I was 18 before I met a white man who could not read. I was shocked. It was in Tannum Sands, QLD.]

* As cars rarely travelled above 60 kilometres an hour [circa 1935], and often at a mere 30 kilometres, a trip to Melbourne – allowing for one punctured tyre and a boiling radiator and a long stop for lunch – was a prolonged event. As it was summertime, a brown canvas bag full of drinking water was carried, the bag being tied to the front of the car so that the rush of air kept it cool.

* Meanwhile I was almost old enough to take an interest in but not yet able to understand what our father did for a living, nor why he did it. For more than half a century he was to keep a record of each Sunday service he presided over. He also recorded the biblical words he chose as the basis of his sermon, and the four hymns that were sung by the congregation. On most Sundays he conducted at least three services, in three different places. I did not realise how systematic he was until I saw, after his death, the notebooks in which these devotional details were recorded in ink, week after week, decade after decade. Possibly he had a fear of delivering a sermon that his congregation had heard from him a few months previously: more likely he wished to keep a true record of what he regarded as his trusteeship as a worker in the Lord’s vineyard. Handling statistics with pleasure, he knew the number of every one of the thousand and more hymns in the Methodist hymnbook. He knew too the precise chapter and verse in which thousands of verses could be found in the Bible.

He remembered the numberplates of hundreds of cars owned by people whom he knew. Sometimes he would pass a car travelling along the road, notice its numberplate, and remark that it was the car once owned by an acquaintance in a certain country town. That was in the era when cars travelled so slowly that it was easy to read their numberplates.

Keeping a large library, Dad spent more on books than he really could afford. As a preacher he was thoughtful and perhaps slightly mystical in his later decades. He often spoke of heaven but rarely of hell. Preparing sermons carefully during the week, and basing them on texts chosen from the Bible after much deliberation, he carried into the pulpit a neat summary of what he wished to say. Listeners gained the impression that the sermon was largely delivered off the cuff. Most sentences were created on the spur of the moment but the main thoughts and the sequence in which they were expressed were carefully thought out in advance.

* When he preached he did not play to the gallery. While he knew that many congregations liked human-interest anecdotes snipped from that week’s news or from the reported doings of living celebrities, he did not present that kind of newsworthy sermon. He mainly preached the Bible, applying its message to the trials and triumphs of the lives of the people who sat listening. He must have timed his sermons, because they rarely were too long (except for little children) and never too short. Hearing or half-hearing him on nearly every Sunday of the first fourteen years of my life – Methodist babies were taken regularly into church to soak up the spirit – I almost took him for granted, not realising until later how skilled he was at what he viewed as his duty and privilege: the preaching of the Word.

At the small west Victorian town of Jeparit, he was to have one of his long-remembered moments as a preacher. For several decades the Menzies family, then storekeepers, were stalwarts of the local Methodist church, there being no Presbyterian one. Some thirty years later one of their sons, Robert Gordon Menzies, as Liberal prime minister of Australia, accepted an invitation to revisit his boyhood town and church, and my father was invited to return and preach in the same church that morning. ‘Bob’ Menzies in his commanding way stood up and read aloud a psalm from the Bible, and later my father gave the sermon, but they probably did not shake hands, for Menzies and his wife Pattie had to hurry away to another engagement as soon as the service had ended. Months later in Melbourne, when by chance they were at the same social event, Menzies recognised my father and walked over and graciously congratulated him on his preaching and the theme of the sermon. My father, who probably tended to be a Labor sympathiser, could never forget that kind and spontaneous gesture.
In a country town the minister’s contacts were overwhelmingly with his flock. If visitors stayed at our house, they were usually Methodists, arriving on what was called ‘a deputation’. When our parents did business in the town – buying meat or groceries, or taking our boots for repair – they usually did it with a Methodist. This was natural. Their income came from these same people, by way of the collection plate handed around in church, and they tried to repay a little of it. If two Methodist families operated a draper’s shop or a milk round in the town my mother divided the business between the two, with a slight preference for the cheaper one. When bad luck befell Methodists, our mother would help. The coming of the passenger train from Melbourne was a major event; and one morning, just as the locomotive was leaving the railway station, a waiting woman fell on the tracks and her legs were severed. Her son came to our house to stay.
These tightly knit congregations have largely vanished. They are no longer viewed very sympathetically in the media and sections of some universities, but the years will return when their merits – along with the defects – will be seen more clearly. With personal disaster and adversity they coped bravely.

* Our meals, eaten in the kitchen unless visitors were expected, were simple. At breakfast we ate hot porridge – breakfast cereals were too expensive for a large family – and on each plate of steaming porridge was poured a little milk and more sugar. Occasionally, in place of sugar, a spoon of golden syrup – a richly coloured treacle – was trickled onto the porridge. On our slices of toast we usually spread dripping, which was the fat saved from the roasting of meat, and a little salt. We loved hot toast and dripping, but it has been banished from Australian menus by a mixture of prosperity and a rising fear of heart attacks.

Although we lived close to dairy farms we ate little butter – it was expensive. Even for cooking cakes and biscuits, butter was rarely used. I remember that one swagman, to whom my mother gave sandwiches, threw them away at the front gate because the bread holding the meat was either unbuttered or merely flicked with butter. My mother was vexed by his contemptuous behaviour because she always gave strangers the same food as we ate. On days when we ourselves ate butter we obeyed the family rule that you could eat toast with butter or toast with jam but not both together. This frugal rule was observed in countless households.
The midday meal was hot, and known as ‘dinner’. It concluded with a hot pudding or – in summertime – junket or custard or stewed fruits: Mum had shelves full of fruit that she had bottled herself. The evening meal, called ‘tea’, was lighter but could be formal if visitors arrived. Every church visitor to the town was accommodated in our house. For their benefit, butter was put on the table, and perhaps eggs were cooked at breakfast.
Potatoes, pumpkins, other fresh vegetables and bread dominated our diet. We also ate mutton as well as the cheaper butcher’s meats – lamb’s fry and kidneys which I loved, and brains which I loathed. Poultry was eaten at one meal of the year, Christmas dinner, the chosen fowl having lost its head on the chopping block in the wood-yard on the previous day.
After each meal the dishes were washed in the kitchen sink. From an early age we children took turns in using a light tea towel to dry the dishes. To wash dishes and cooking utensils, hot water was poured from the black kettle kept standing on the top of the wood stove. The hot water for the tea – we drank no coffee – came from the same kettle. Like most families we had no hot-water tank or service, and so we washed our face and hands in the morning in a basin of cold water. Maybe on very cold mornings the water came from the kettle. The constant instruction to us was to ‘wash behind the ears’, which suggests that we usually did not.

* Mrs Joshua, who possessed vivacity and human warmth, was a Catholic. In a smallish town it was unusual, in the era of sectarian rivalry, for the wife of a Methodist minister to have a close friend who was a Catholic.

* At Newtown State School the female teachers seemed more animated than the male ones, some of whom were returned soldiers and perhaps affected by their experience of war. One languid good-natured man opened our gates of knowledge in the morning and wearily closed them well before the day was over. In one year the most rewarding lesson was in gardening. A few of us were allowed to turn on the tap at the top of the schoolyard and let the water flow down the irrigation channel we dug in the soil. The garden sometimes blossomed.
It is easy to forget how vulnerable we were. In the street or in a shop an adult could rebuke us sternly and sometimes unjustly: adults had more moral and punitive authority than they have today. Even in the school’s playground an older bully could snatch our bag of marbles or small bundle of football cards and run away, knowing if he was big that he might never be pursued.

* When the Geelong team was playing in Melbourne, and the match was important enough to attract a radio station, I prepared to listen to the large ‘wireless’ in the sitting room – and operated my own scoreboard. In those days a game of football usually started at 2.45 p.m., so that people who worked in the morning could have time to go home, change out of their working clothes, and then proceed to the football ground. When the time for the radio broadcast came near I was in a state of tension, hoping that the sound of the broadcast would be clear and that Geelong would win. The football ‘match of the day’ on ABC Radio was introduced by a military band playing a Strauss tune, and the band was allowed to play uninterruptedly for a minute or more before the announcer on duty advised us that ‘we are now crossing’ to so-and-so ground to hear a broadcast of the match. The idea of playing classical music as a prelude to the broadcast of a popular football match would now be seen as highbrow.

* Not until later years did I realise that my father, in attending the football, was carrying out his pastoral duties though he also enjoyed the game. His church had footballing links and he thought it his duty to take an interest in whatever attracted the members of his flock.

* For most Australian children of that era, Sunday was a special day though it was seen as a day of duty as much as a holiday. I observed the atmosphere of Sunday morning, even at maybe the age of five. There was a silence in the streets, and almost everything was closed. It was different to the other days, and we were allowed to read in bed until a slightly later hour; and Mum and Dad by their attitude announced quietly that they were not completely in charge of us. I suspect that they both had imbibed the religious text that, in full colour, was printed in flowery style on pieces of cardboard framed on the walls of countless Australian sitting rooms or placed prominently on the kitchen mantelpiece: ‘This is the day which The Lord hath made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.’
When we awoke we saw our Sunday clothes laid out ready for us to wear. On such a morning I used to rub into my windblown hair a sweet-smelling yellowish oil called brilliantine, which almost kept it in place. To have your hair neatly parted, in a straight line down the side or right down the middle, was a high priority. On the previous evening we had to clean our shoes, rubbing the black polish into them and then shining the leather.

* We reached the outskirts of Bendigo soon after sunset. Our favourite Jehu, his one useful arm tugging at the steering wheel, eventually reached his own mother’s house in the suburb of Quarry Hill. After we had rung the doorbell and waited for what seemed an hour she came to the front door. In a kindly way she instructed us, to our juvenile astonishment, to put the horses in the stables before we came inside. Her memory was failing, and she assumed that we had come in a horse-drawn vehicle. After all, she herself had travelled over much of the western half of Victoria when roads were unmade and the horse was king.
Once inside her rambling house, my brother and I were not in the least interested in questioning her about her slow dray-journey, long ago, to become one of the first white women in a new farming district. Instead we longed to know who had won the football, for Geelong was playing at Richmond. From her wireless, after much tuning in, we heard the final scores.

* I followed the disasters and the occasional triumphs of the Allied side in the European war every day except Sunday, when newspapers were prohibited by law.

* Darwin and the ships in its harbour were heavily bombed by Japanese raids on 19 February 1942. The newspapers, censored by the government in Canberra, minimised the deaths and the damage. Many Australians continued to fear that their country would be invaded, though children were largely protected from the fear: indeed they protected themselves, for their outlook on the world tends to be optimistic. Early in the year, lessons were halted at many Victorian high schools, at least for the boys, and nearly all hands were employed in digging air-raid trenches. We brought our fathers’ picks, shovels or spades to the school and dug long trenches to a depth of about a metre and a half. The earth and clay tossed aside by the shovels gave the trenches an additional height. They were zigzag in shape, presumably so that a Japanese aircraft flying above in a straight line and firing a machine gun would hit only a fraction of the children sheltering there. The digging of the trenches was exciting; a sense of team spirit came from somewhere, and many of us were disappointed when the task was completed and we had to go back to the classrooms and full-time lessons. Once the winter set in, the trenches quickly filled with rainwater.

* It seemed a waste of talent that ‘Tosh’ Phillips should teach reluctant boys, for he was one of the more astute critics in the land. It was he who coined one of the most quotable of Australian phrases, the cultural cringe, which Paul Keating as prime minister was to employ vigorously more than one generation later. The ‘cultural cringe’ referred to an old-time Australian tendency to bow down in the presence of English culture. The day was to come when many Australians tended to ‘cringe’ slightly in the presence of the multicultural.

* With calmness and clarity, he discussed the laws of supply and demand and the realm of economic behaviour but also objected if they defied Christian ethics.

* I had a burning desire to see Sydney. In our nation’s short history, it seemed almost as pivotal as Rome was to Italy’s long history. To visit the shining harbour now seems a humble ambition, but most Victorians of that time saw no prospect of travelling overseas, and therefore a short planned visit to Sydney was like a tour of Europe today.

* After an hour or so the van halted in the main street of Wycheproof and we went with the driver into a Greek or Italian cafe for breakfast. We had bacon and eggs, with bread and butter and hot tea and those thin red slices of cooked beetroot that were the common decoration on dinner plates in country cafes. This was probably only the second time in my life [then 18yo] that I had eaten a meal in a cafe or restaurant.

* In my first year I drank no alcohol. Most university students of my age, whether female or male, did not drink; and if they did, it was only once or twice a year, and then by the half-glass. The aroma of beer, noticeable outside crowded hotels with open doors or windows, displeased me because it was stale and bitter. My ancestral background too was opposed to alcohol. All of my grandparents opposed it in any form, and my father as a teenager had been the secretary of, I think, the California Gully Tent of Rechabites, which sounds like a sissy society but – judging by the surviving photograph of them, rank after rank – was certainly not. Its members, whether young men or teenagers, had promised to abstain from alcohol so long as they lived; but Gallipoli and the Western Front must have weakened the resolve of some.
The smoking of tobacco was less frowned upon by my parents’ friends.

* It is difficult, in retrospect, to know why one’s basic views change: it is difficult enough, at the very time they are turning, to know why they are making a somersault. Sometimes we slowly shuffle away from positions once tenaciously held, almost as if the mooring ropes become loose rather than some new idea arises.
At this time I also lost faith in some of my rather utopian ideas. I ceased to think that paradise could be created by a wise government – partly because I came to the view that most human beings had a cussed and a contrary streak. We were capable of evil and mischief as well as trying to imitate the good and great.
In heading towards this more cautious view of human nature I was reflecting some of my serious reading during recent months: the study of English puritanism, the hearing of sermons on Sunday evening by the Rev. Dr Calvert Barber in the Queen’s College chapel, and the occasional visits, sometimes with other students, to hear the preachers in a variety of city churches. I was affected by the somewhat gloomy New York theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, whom I read while holidaying in the Dandenong Ranges where occasionally my parents rented a house made up of old Melbourne cable trams. For many students then, serious books not on the syllabus were lighthouses; and perhaps they shone more than they do today.
By chance there fell into my hands a biography of Edmund Burke, the Irish orator who rebelled against the utopianism and violence displayed in the French Revolution. To his cautious assessment of human nature, I see that I gave tentative ‘ticks’ in one of my private notebooks. If I had not recently found the notebook I would have sworn I had never read Burke. On the whole I retained more optimism than pessimism about the world, whose future was so precarious during some years of the long Cold War.

* Tasmania was viewed by most people of my generation as a pale replica of the British Isles, and the area around Ross with its roadside hedges, oaks, elms and other English trees was seen as its heartland. Since most Australians – including me – doubted whether they would ever visit Europe, Tasmania was the closest substitute.

* Bill Harney, who won a name as a storyteller in the heyday of radio, once spent three months in the local jail, but as compensation he had access to the town’s library, and it provided one of the turning points in his life: ‘As night fell and we couldn’t read any more, we would discuss far into the night the things we had read about that day’.

* Miles had his own way of measuring time, and each particular year was engraved on his memory with the name of the horse that won the Melbourne Cup. After he had recalled an episode or incident, I would often ask, ‘And what year was that?’ After a pause, perhaps after peering down to chip charcoal from the inside of his pipe, he would look up and say, ‘Now, that was the year Sister Olive won the Cup.’

* [Aussie secretary]: “I don’t know if I can make you understand that I found this rather difficult: it was all so interesting and there was so much which was quite new to me as well as that which was of course familiar, that somehow I was so carried along in the narrative that I found my critical faculty as to accuracy or otherwise was more or less dormant.”

Some professors and many company chairmen today are incapable of composing such a delicate, complicated sentence and guiding it to a safe landing.

* Those economists partly understood by me included Keynes, Marshall, Jevons, Adam Smith and Roy Harrod, all of whom were masters of English prose. A decade or more later the declining mastery of clear English was to stem the influence of economists in national and international debate.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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