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Thursday, January 23, 2014

How I Became an Australian...or how I nearly became a Kiwi...

Ripper, bonzer,'s my turn to be part of the great AUSTRALIA DAY BLOGHOP. I'm as chuffed as a kookaburra with a beak full of sausage, straight off the barbie. Thank you to the wonderful Annie Seaton for her hard work in herding a bunch of wayward Aussies into some semblance of order!

"I am... you are... we are Australian..."

That song , “I am Australian” has a particular poignancy for me and never fails to bring tears to my eyes.

In October 2002 we were living in Singapore. My husband was already commuting to his job in Melbourne but I had remained in Singapore to allow my eldest son to finish his schooling at the Australian International School. The Year 12s were a week off finishing their exams when the Bali bombings occurred. Of the 202 people killed at Kuta Beach, 88 were Australians. Nothing, short of war, could have had such a devastating affect on Australia. A week later and it could have been half of the young people from the AIS who had been planning “schoolies” in Bali. As it was the Singapore Rugby 7s had been playing in a tournament on Kuta and several members were killed, many injured. We all knew someone who was directly affected.

The Australian High Commissioner opened up the High Commission to the Australian expatriate community for a memorial service. The place was packed, a community united by shock and grief. The High Commissioner spoke of the importance of “tribe” and how the tribe comes together in times of trouble and sadness. The Australian school choir sang “I am Australian”. Men and women, larrikin Aussies all, wept. It was in that moment I really understood what it was to be Australian.

You see I was not born Australian, although through a quirk in my family tree, I should have been. My great great grandparents were Australian born and bred, tracing their lineage back to 1798 - to a country that had been settled by Europeans for less than 10 years. I can point to my convict roots and make claim to being Australian “royalty” but whatever their own reasons my great+ grandparents decided to “return” to England in the 1860s and that particular branch of the family settled into comfortable middle class life in London.

I was therefore born a “British” citizen at the end of the British Empire, in the dying days of colonial life, in Nairobi, Kenya. My mother had been born in Kenya where her father had gone as a colonial civil servant in the 1920s and my father, following a long and divergent route, had decided to end his British army career in a country he fell in love with and, I suspect, mourned to his dying day. Independence came in 1963 and my parents decided that modern Kenya held no future for their children but where to go? They could not bear the thought of returning “home” to a country neither of them had lived in for twenty years and to which they felt no allegiance. So they decided to have a look at New Zealand.

A good military man, my father was all booked for his reconnaissance trip to the land of the long white cloud. He even had an introduction to then Governor of NZ. It looked like I would live out my life pronouncing my name “Ulison”. Unfortunately I gave him mumps and the trip had to be cancelled. Months passed and he decided perhaps Australia might be worth a look so off he went, returning with a stuffed koala bear and favourable reports. There was a large expatriate community of ex Kenyan colonials in Perth and that would be where we would move. The one city he had nothing good to report on was a miserable, cold city on the bottom of the country, where all the pubs closed at 6.00pm. If we lived nowhere else we would not, he declared, ever live in Melbourne.

My travel diary for the move... showing indications of the writer I would become... Kilmanjaro -  "Its splendour showing radiant against the blue sky..."
Mauritius on route to Perth
We had to meet with a visiting member of the Australian parliament to prove, we suspected, that my mother (and indeed my brother and I!) was white. The late 1960s marked the dying days of the "White Australia Policy" and my mother's own birth in Kenya may have aroused suspicions! 

In July 1968, as approved migrants travelling under the General Assistance Package Scheme (not quite ten pound poms but pretty close!), the move was made and our little family transposed from Nairobi to Perth. I had studied Australia at school in Nairobi and I knew all about the Ord River scheme (yes, really!) but it was something of a disappointment to find that kangaroos did not live in the back yard of our rented house in Subiaco. In fact my parents might as well have moved me to the moon.  I am not sure I even spoke the same language as the girls at St. Marys Church of England Grammar School. 

A forlorn Perth school girl 1968
In my first few months in Perth I survived the Meckering earthquake and  the running of some sort of horse race in far off much derided Melbourne which necessitated the Grade 5 girls clustered around a radio at the end of the school grounds during lunch hour (for the record, the 1968 Melbourne Cup won by Rain Lover). I can't say those early days in my new country were very happy. I was definitely the odd one out.

Dad couldn’t find work in Perth. My parents carefully eked out savings were beginning to run out and despite strident advice from my mother’s father (always a plain speaker), they decided it had all been a terrible mistake and we would move to South Africa. We were booked on the next boat to South Africa when a job opportunity came up in ... Melbourne. The passage to South Africa was cancelled and we moved to the cold miserable city where the pubs closed at 6.00pm.

I loved Melbourne from the moment we stepped into a taxi at the airport. I blossomed at my new school. I made lifelong friends. There were a few adjustments to be mad... a nasty moment in my first week at my new school when it was discovered I didn’t know the National Anthem (God Save the Queen) and disparaging notes were sent home to my mother. (BTW I can still sing the Kenyan national anthem!)

An Australian with the paper to prove it!
My life in Kenya slipped into the furthest recesses of my mind and on 21 November 1977 at the age of 18 I became an Australian - I even have the piece of paper to prove it. Actually we all became Australians, even my father who grumbled at the inequity of being made to swear allegiance to the same monarch he had served as a British Army Officer for 15 years. However not for us, the public ceremonies where you are presented with a gum tree or a wattle with much singing of the National anthem (the newly minted Advance Australia Fair to which NO ONE knew the words). Dad arranged for private, oddly impersonal, meetings with a public servant in a gloomy office somewhere in the city. Mr. Albert Terence Stuckey “Migration Officer” signed me off as having sworn the the proper oath of allegiance and I was officially Australian, completing a circle begun by my convict ancestress in 1798.

One last tie bound me to my British citizenship. I still had a British passport. In 1984 I married an Australian and the unmitigated bureaucratic nightmare of travelling internationally with a spouse on a different passport forced my hand and I surrendered my passport. I was now 100% Australian and the mother of two little Australians.

It is only when I speak, that the well enunciated vowels of a colonial past slip out and betray my non-Australian background. I can’t change the way I speak. That will be with me forever, but for those who think I do have an English accent - stick me in England and you will see that what I have is a peculiar accent that is neither English nor Australian but the product of both.

My 3 year sojourn as an Expat in Singapore sealed the deal (despite the accent becoming more pronounced!). I loved being an Australian abroad. I may have been a member of the British Club but it was in the company of Aussies - at the opening of the Sydney Olympics, at Melbourne Cup functions, watching the AFL Grand Final with the airconditioning way down and wrapped in scarves, putting on an Australia Day morning tea for the ExxonMobil spouses… and standing with my tribe at the ANZAC Day dawn service or weeping while the children sang “I am Australian” at the Bali Memorial Service -  that I really understood what it was to be Australian. Dinky di, true blue Australian...

MY GIVEAWAY:  As you probably know I mostly write historicals set in the seventeenth century, long before Australia was "discovered" but I yearned to write a book with an Australian character, that reflected the experience of being an Australian. In GATHER THE BONES I have an Australian heroine, Helen Morrow, and I am giving away a copy of this multi-award nominated, Amazon best seller to a lucky commenter who can tell me their favourite fictional Australian (is it Crocodile Dundee? Edna Everidge? errr... how many fictional Australians do we have???).
AND DON'T FORGET MY LATEST BOOK:  CLAIMING THE REBEL'S HEART is now out now on AMAZON and where all good ebooks are sold. 

AND LASTLY, BUT MOST IMPORTANTLY, PLEASE ENTER THE BLOG HOP'S OWN RAFFLECOPTER CONTEST. A $100 Amazon voucher and other prizes are on offer. Entry below!!!

Happy Australia Day on the 26th January