Shadow of fear in 1950s

My father was a Protestant Minister, and he carried his fear of others as secretly and discreetly as he could. His fear of others was also carried in a similar way by our community. Perhaps not secretly, exactly. Just hidden and unmentionable much of the time.

The feared ‘others’ made quite a list: gamblers, drinkers, Catholics, homosexuals, loud women, “Krauts (Germans), Nips (Japanese), hippies, motorcycle riders,” as well as, people with tattoos, people who screamed while singing, women in low-cut gowns on television and anyone who wore a leather jacket or visited snooker halls.

Any other members of humanity who did not want to be lifted up by our eastern suburbs’ way of life – Aborigines and Italians (Abos and Ities as my father ‘affectionately’ called them), migrants of all colours and, of course, ruffians of any colour at all. The key to acceptance was to be like us.

It was the 1950s, and we lived in an alcohol-free enclave in the suburb of Burwood – no pubs, no bars and no bottle shops – a protection zone for God-loving families for whom salvation was only possible with proper social standards and controls.

My mother was drawn to the ‘other’

But while my father and his congregation tried to hide their fear of others, my mother was drawn to others like a heat-seeking missile. I realised this in my mid-teens when I discovered her long-term relationship with a whisky-drinking punter who had business dealings with Greek fishermen from Port Melbourne and a Yugoslavian starting price bookies. She had formal friendships with the ladies from various women’s auxiliaries, servicing churches and hospitals. Still, her real mate was a gay insurance salesman who took her to all sorts of places I knew nothing about. Still don’t.

Barely 10 miles away, at Station Pier, a massing flow of others from Southern Europe humped their sea chests and suitcases toward inner city Melbourne. Station Pier was one of our favourite places when we were kids. With coke bottles as both rod and reel, we wound on nylon fishing line and cast out baited rigs into Port Phillip Bay. Our catch was small flatheads and leather jackets. Our baits were squid, mussels, pippies and white bait.

Don’t get me wrong, flathead and leather jackets are good for eating, but you might imagine my astonishment when I sat down to on of my first Greek meals in Fitzroy after I left home at 18 and was served the bait we used on Station Pier.

Don’t get me wrong, flathead and leather jackets are good for eating, but you might imagine my astonishment when I sat down to on of my first Greek meals in Fitzroy after I left home at 18 and was served the bait we used on Station Pier.

‘The Times They Are A-Changin’ he sang

I was 13 years old when Bob Dylan released ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’. A couple of years later, I was swept along with that song towards the growing international protest movement opposing the Vietnam War. I was a rebellious and poorly performing student by the time I was in my last year of secondary school. I was terrified of facing conscription to the Australian Army and being sent to Vietnam to fight. I failed almost every subject in my final year.

I’d had enough of Burwood, the church, my parents and most of my schoolmates, who were only too happy to have a go at what they called, “Gook Commos’ in their black pyjamas”.

Escaping the grey

I did a runner to Carlton. A place alive with folk music and jazz, pubs and bars, food I couldn’t recognise, radical theatre, union organisers, pisspot poets and housing commission flats with the United Nations inside – or so it seemed.

While a bit of casual laboring work kept enough coming in to pay for a room in a share-house with many singers and musos, I went down to the Fitzroy Council. I volunteered to work in the social welfare department. I had thoughts of becoming a social worker or youth worker.

My life changed there. I was assigned to assist the wonderful Joy Moysers, to organise the first Fitzroy Festival of All Nations. You can trace the development of Multicultural Arts Victoria directly back to that event in 1973. I can’t recall the full program , but I will never forget the All Nations Display Night in the Town Hall.

The event was scheduled to begin at 7pm and finish at 10pm. By 5.30, families with baskets of food were forming a noisy queue, and by 11.30, there were still acts waiting in the wings to go on.

Bee-dance to Greece

During a break, as the stage was reset, the owner of the milk bar on the corner of my street, The Busy Bee, emerged from the over-capacity audience. He walked slowly toward the stage and began to dance that slow zebekiko dance performed in tavernas everywhere. This chubby short Zorba won the crowd. They clapped, whistled, and hooted. He bowed. And he wept a little as he returned to his seat.

The next day, I went to The Busy Bee for a packet of Rothman’s and the paper and told him how much I loved his dance.

He told me I should go to Greece and stay with his family and within 18 months, I was the one dancing in front of the audience at 3am in a nightclub in Thessaloniki.

Unrequited love affair with Hellas

My love affair with Greece has never faded and even includes kokoretsi. It also consists of a great learning made possible by profound wisdom contained in the language – an ancient insight that saw deeply into the nature of love and created seven words to express the most important of all human feelings.

There can be an awkwardness in using the multipurpose word ‘love” in English. The speaker often wonders if the listener will understand what they are really trying to say. The listener often holds back, wondering the same thing. It’s also difficult to be taken seriously if the word ‘love’ is used in the robust day to day worlds of politics and enterprise.

We English speakers would do well to use another Greek word, agape, if we want to break the curse of ‘othering’ and be able to express unconditional empathy and compassion clearly and confidently for all. We become what we talk about more easily if we have a word for it, rather a variety of phrases we need to reassemble when needs arise.

As the first Fitzroy Festival of All Nations reverberated through the arts community in Victoria for decades, its impact set me on a path to explore more deeply what is common to us all. Over the last 20 years, I have not focused so much on diversity. My interest has been drawn to the opposite. That which unites us and all things. The notion of ‘the other’ begins to disappear as understanding what’s common takes over.

Time to write it down

My expeditions along this path have resulted in a recently released novel, The Celestials, a Chinese brother and sister who escaped the British bombardment that commenced the Second Opium War and arrived in the Victoria colony to search for gold. They are on the margins of colonial society, as are the poor Irish settlers, with whom they find interests in common. Their interaction with the notorious Kelly gang becomes a dangerous political alliance.

Ian Roberts launching his book The Celestials. Photo: Supplied

While the story brings to light some intriguing and little-known historical facts, the story is really about being an ‘other’.

As the years have passed, my feelings about my mother and father have softened. I am beginning to feel storge for them more strongly than at any other time. I just wish they were here to read my book.

The Celestials is available at Readings Bookstores and online sellers. Also direct from Australian Scholarly Publishing

Ian Roberts is the Deputy Chair at Annamila First Nations Foundation, a freelance writer, and a seasoned arts leader, he is the former CEO of Harold Mitchell Foundation, the Melbourne Festival, and Geelong Performing Arts Centre.