IMAGE: Jack Cole (back), father of Catherine Cole, with a childhood friend in Barnsley
Back in the 1950s and 60s, around 1 million Brits applied to go and live in Australia – as portrayed in the BBC drama, Ten Pound Poms. Among them was the family of Catherine Cole, Professor of Creative Writing at LJMU whose new book Slipstream is a poignant memoir of that time and a reflection on what it is to be a migrant.
Q. What were your family circumstances back in fifties Yorkshire?
Like so many of those British migrants, my family wanted a better life for themselves and their kids. They were sick of the snow and the gloom of post war Britain, the rationing particularly. My father worked at Monkton Pit in Royston as a foreman platelayer and many of his relatives worked underground. It was a kind of Yorkshire family heroics to have miners in your genealogy. My father knew he was safer above ground but there was always a soft spot for his underground workmates.
Those Australian recruitment posters would have impressed him – all those sunny beaches and bungalows with a Holden car in every driveway. He was sponsored by my uncle and aunt – my father’s cousin – so work and a place to stay in Sydney were guaranteed. I often reflect on how brave they were though – they had barely travelled outside South Yorkshire but they, with my two older siblings, applied to take a 12,000 mile voyage to a new place. In Slipstream I want to celebrate their courage and that of the millions of migrants around the world who have taken such a leap.
Q. What did they find when they arrived and how well did they settle?
When they got to Sydney they stayed with my aunt and bought a large block of land on which they built a house. They’d met other Northern migrants on the voyage out, from Lancashire and some from Northumbria and my family stayed friends with them all their lives. They helped one another build their houses and remained a key cultural touchstone with the past. Our family outings and celebrations were full of Northern dialect and sayings. We got parcels from England with Pomfret cakes and rock and parkin and Beano and The Dalesman and the Barnsley Chronicle. My father supported Leeds United. I still get sentimental about all these things.
My parents were homesick though and that feeling remained for decades. My father loved to sing, especially old fashioned and sad songs like ‘I’ll Take You Home Again Kathleen’ and ‘Danny Boy’ so these acted as a vehicle for his nostalgia and sense of loss. They both loved to garden so they spent a lot of time growing vegetables and flowers and that kept them happy. I have numerous childhood photographs of myself and my siblings standing beside big tubs of peaches and plums and tomatoes. My mother sent these photos to family in England as a marker of how well we were doing.
They had it tough but they didn’t ever think about going back. Ten Pound Poms were required to stay two years or pay back their residual fare which would have been around £120 – a big sum in those days. A lot of people did go home but mine soldiered on. They didn’t regret it.
Q. Was it ‘Brits abroad’ over there or was it a multicultural society?
Post war Australia was very multicultural. People migrated there from Europe. The British were the main group though. When I went to school there were very few students whose parents who had been born in Australia and my friends were from all over the world. This meant we mixed with lots of people – all of whom had their own experiences of migration, some unique to their cultural group and others more universal.
There are a number of common denominators in migration – a loss of self through loss of homeland and history, a feeling of being othered or different so that the real you, that young person you were when you left is internalised, frozen. You can’t complain because you don’t want to sound ungrateful or you’ll be defined as ‘whinging Poms’ or some other cultural slur. I think migration is particularly hard for refugees who are forced from their homelands and end up in a place hostile to them. Being caught between two hostile cultures must be detrimental to the soul. The cultural historian Ghassan Hage says we should be wary of ‘miserabilist’ migrant narratives – that homesickness is a normal part of adapting to a new place. This narrative certainly changed in Australia with the Whitlam Labour Government of 1972 – 75 which brought about reforms that supported multiculturalism in its fullest and most inclusive sense.
Q. How was your childhood as a British-Australian?
By the time I was born my parents had settled into life in Sydney but I was certainly aware of their love of England – and Yorkshire in particular. We Aussie kids found this a bit trying at times. It was odd having a dad who had his cloth caps sent out from Sheffield or made us all sit quietly while he listened to the football scores on the radio. We were beachy and sporty. When we went to Manly Beach we wanted to swim while they preferred to sit under the Norfolk pines with a thermos of hot tea. I was addicted to travel stories though and as soon as I was old enough I started to travel too – my next book is about my teenage travels around England on a 49cc Mobylette motorscooter.
Q. Tell us about your journey in researching this book?
I researched the Ten Pound Poms side of the book through archives and books and also through family stories. Before he died in 2022, my brother was a great source of information and the book is dedicated to him. There are lots of family photos of course, and my own observations as a child. The children of migrants often become quite forensic, I think, in the ways they scrutinise and make sense of their parent’s experiences. Lots of writers have written of these observations and also about their own ways of re-shaping their lives in a new place.
I also travelled through Yorkshire on an LJMU grant which allowed me to research in Barnsley, Royston, Wakefield and various other sites such as New Miller Dam which my mother spoke about. And I went up to Glasgow to see where their ship, the much discussed and mythologised - Empire Brent – departed from the Clydeside docks.
Q. And how does your family reality square with the recent TV series?
Not at all, really. I found the series strained a bit too hard at sensationalism and lost a lot of its power because of this. Indigenous Australians have had a terrible time since the first settlers came and stole their lands. It’s an ongoing political failing as the recent Voice referendum showed. I doubt my parents thought much about this till after the 1970s. They were too busy re-establishing themselves in the new place. I think ‘Ten Pound Poms’ could have handled the indigenous concerns quite differently but it was well meaning and I have no doubt that lots of British migrants had a hard time with racism despite being English speaking and of the dominant culture.
Q. How do you feel now about the sacrifice your parents made for your better future?
I’m grateful on a lot of different levels. An Australian childhood was great fun and I went to university and got jobs that allowed me to travel and buy a house. I had the benefit of a UK passport. Most importantly, I feel I have lived a kind of double-life and both – English and Australian - were enriching and fed the writer I became. Migrants give up a lot for the betterment of their children’s lives – that’s a lot to sacrifice. My mother was one of 10 children and my father 4 and they lost that family closeness. They took on the responsibility of creating a new family in a new place. Now, their children and grandchildren have created a multicultural Australian family that includes, Austrian, Indian, Italian, Irish, Lebanese and Maltese family members. I’m sure that’s not something they envisaged when they left Barnsley.
Q. How do you reflect on the UK/European anti-migrant debate given your family’s experiences?
I don’t like it, and especially not when human suffering is turned into dog-whistle politics. Multiculturalism enriches societies and we learn much from one another. My parents, my childhood friends and my travel and research have confirmed this view.