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The Morning Side of the Hill - Book Review

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by Alison Muirhead (subscribe)
Doting grandmother and grey nomad who should join Volunteers Anonymous and is greatly in favour of a ten day week. So much to do, so little time.
Published February 21st 2013
A Child's War in Tropical North Queensland

I borrowed the CD of this wonderful book of nostalgia from the local library as it did not have the print version. Is that because the book buyers consider that most interested readers will be print handicapped or will be the Kindle-deprived technologically challenged? Unfortunately, CDs are subject to damage which renders them unintelligible in parts. Just as the excellent narrator, Dale Heidenreich, was about to relate something that really interested me, me, me, me, me, me … I was so frustrated as I forwarded the CD to the next track.

Marion Houldsworth has written an autobiographical account of life in Townsville during the Second World War. Yes, it will appeal most to folks who also remember that era, but any Baby Boomer will find something to relate to and be entertained by. Such was the education system, for example, right into the mid-sixties. For generations which come after, there is a great history lesson told in an entertaining manner. What better way to pass the time from home to work with the MP3 player with the bonuses of education and entertainment?

My old Mum said she raised her children in the very best of times – the 'forties, 'fifties and 'sixties. Ours was a pre- and post-war family. She herself left Townsville pre-war with two young children, and put up with some of the privations experienced there whilst raising her family in Brisbane. All expenditure was governed by the ration card. Many families joined forces under the one roof to stretch rent and food monies and ration cards. My pre-war family consisted of one family of four, another of five, and a widowed grandmother and unmarried uncle. All lived in an old Queenslander with one bathroom, two bedrooms and a sleepout (enclosed verandah). Quite cosy.

Despite the many privations of wartime days, children could still be children, enjoying a freedom that today's cotton wool wrapped generation would envy. On the other hand, they were more familiar with the realities of death, not as depicted in the fantasy world of computer games.

Marion's family decided to see out the war in Townsville as her father was stationed nearby. Life was very different from the carefree one experienced pre-war. With the ever-present threat of bombing by the Japanese, blackout curtains, air raid shelters, and fire fighting equipment were essential, and these were subject to inspection by government authorities.

The government issued many decrees on topics ranging from growing your own fruit and veg to banning the manufacture of toys. As the giving of Christmas gifts was discouraged, the latter should not have been a problem, but no loving parent wanted to see their child disadvantaged by such a suggestion. Consequently there was a bun fight every time the local Red Cross held a craft sale as mothers fought over who had seen a Raggedy Ann doll first.

Today we take refrigeration for granted, but ice chests (look it up on Wikipedia) were the forerunners of fridge/freezers. Imagine lining up at 2.30 a.m. with a sugar bag to ensure you had a block of ice to keep your perishables fresh. Along with the perishables, ice was scarce, and the military had priority in the early days of the war. A special ration of soft drinks for the Christmas period saw families disguising various family members so they could enjoy more than their fair share. You were expected to take along your own bottles, as glass was scarce. This did not stop the soldiers stationed in Townsville smashing their alcohol containers in the streets rather than bin them. Marion reports that the streets literally glittered with broken glass.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbour, the Americans entered the war, unexpectedly turning up on Townsville beaches, much to the delight of the children. They were described as "overpaid, oversexed and over there". The author was responsible for one of the international incidents, where Australian and American soldiers took out their antipathy for each other in a major street brawl. As Marion describes her reluctance to tell her mother for fear of being disciplined, one can understand why she did not tell her of several other incidents. She thought that she would not be believed about or be blamed for a bus driver having a fiddle in her bloomers. Some things never change for young children. The whole story gives a great insight into children's perceptions of their world.

The characters of wartime Townsville in Marion's experience are larger than life. Mum was a displaced person. Her heart was still back in the Motherland. She cared what people thought of her and wanted her family to be a credit to her. She obviously didn't understand her daughter's sensitivities and Marion was wise enough not to expose these for fear of ridicule or even "a good dressing down". Mum was always aware of her actions as being what one should do in a wartime environment. Her volunteer activities were highly commendable.

Brother Barry was a typical boy. He got into all sorts of scrapes, at home as well as at school. His level of intelligence had him passing the Junior examination in an era when the Grade Eight Scholarship examination marked the transition from life as a scholar to that of worker. Despite his ability, he was not given the opportunity to study further. His great ambition was to join the RAAF and "teach Hitler a lesson". His biggest fear? That the war would end before he could achieve that ambition.

Dad was a sensible man who fought in the Great War for Britain, so his age precluded him from the battlefield. He was doing his bit as a Quarter Master. He was never far from his family, finally being able to settle with them in the family rented home. Both children were afraid of being disciplined by him, either physically or verbally. These were the days when children were seen but not heard, and physical punishment not frowned upon, neither in the school nor in the home.

Auntie Eileen was fortunately an auntie in the polite sense only. She is the character who has the listeners' backs up from the start. Mum took her and her daughter and grandchild into the home, as she was conscientious about doing her bit for the war effort. Auntie Eileen played the sympathy card. She was a widow; she had a bad leg, etcetera, etcetera. The host family was expected to fetch and carry for her. When finally asked to leave because the family could no longer bear her attitude, she also turned out to be a thief of the meanest kind. Marion could have thwarted the theft, but again she felt she would be the one to be disciplined. I wonder if Marion ever had the chance to explain some of her actions to her mother before she died.

If you have a boring job on hand, such as sorting out your book collection into "keep", "check" and "eBay" boxes, or travelling by train from Brisbane to the Gold Coast, check out this most entertaining and informative CD.
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Why? Time enter the mind of a child in wartime Townsville
When: When you want to learn some history painlessly
Where: Anywhere
Cost: Free from your local library
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