Book review. The Land Before Avocado - Journeys in lost Australia by Richard Glover.
“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there” is the opening phrase from The Go-Between by Professor L. P. Hartley published in 1953.
"You don’t like the past? Then fiddle the books … How easy it is, as long as it’s just paper and fallible memory." George Orwell, 1941
"There is no halcyon past for us to return to - our rose-tinted glasses provide 20-20 vision, but on balance i thank my lucky stars i was born a boomer...This is no maudlin sentimentality...it was better (then) than the way it now is." 9 Signs You're a Grumpy Geezer, 2018
Upon reaching the milestone of formal old age, 65, I was gifted, separately but appropriately, two copies of Richard Glover's The Land Before Avocado, an amusing but at the same time irritating revisit to 60s and 70s Australia.
The book is a hybrid of humour and hectoring - it's a hedged history.
Sure, there are chuckles to be had as Glover pokes fun at the fashions, foods and fads of a transformational time in our recent past. But the transformation is the point Glover glosses over in two short paragraphs at the very end of the book. From his perspective several decades on he is castigating us with - "The world of 1970s Australia is almost unimaginable in its level of legal prejudice and casual brutality; its sexism, racism and homophobia. To appreciate how bad things were, and yet how quickly things changed can embolden us".
What a load of angst-ridden hyperbole. The moralising avoidance of relativism in condemning a time of generational change had me grinding what's left of my teeth.
Here you'll find the underlying tone of the self-righteous - Glover is, apparently, an observer of the times but not of the time nor subscriber nor beneficiary. He lets himself off scot-free - there's no individual self-flagellation but a tad too much self-indulgence.
At the time the agents of change were individuals of the stature of Gough Whitlam and organisations such as the Builders Laborers Federation with their green bans protecting swathes of historic Sydney and the early gay and lesbian protesters who are each acknowledged in the book; but not as a part of the underlying mood for challenging the status quo. They are called out as exceptions to a contemptible (but imaginary) apathy of the rest of us. Glover revels in his damnations and produces a cheap imitation of Donald Horne's national castigation that is The Lucky Country.
The book is redeemed to some extent by the amusing look at the quirks and peccadilloes of those times. But even then Glover can't help himself. A staunch advocate of the self-defeating cult of helicopter parenting he sees our childhood freedoms as parental neglect. The wonderfully popular monkey bars and swings of the then ubiquitous playgrounds were death traps he implies. FFS! It wasn't cottonball wrapped, nanny-state sulkers from earlier generations who landed on the moon in 1969, who explored ocean depths and scaled Everest. Perhaps Glover is seeing his childhood years through the eyes of a namby-pamby - a kid who's mother abandoned him by running off with his English teacher. Does he denounce these decades because they are coloured by such a dismal experience?
Some of the book's anecdotes are amusing and bring a smile of wry nostalgia while others border on cliché - such as our traditional diet that typically included vegetables boiled into pulpy submission and the kitsch fashions of the time. The content is his endorsement of the 'now' by sledging the 'then'. Soggy peas vs quinoa and kale? Body-shirts or pre-ripped jeans? Each time has its idiosyncrasies, its positives and its negatives. But each needs to be recognised as a product of evolving standards and conventions.
The 50s, 60s and 70s were not perfect by any means but:
The oceans were not awash with tens of thousands of square miles of plastic gyres.
The extinction of species and environmental degradation were happening. But today we have learned nothing and these experiences are only accelerating.
Rampant consumerism had not taken hold. We had what we needed but we didn't get all that we wanted.
The green surrounds of our cities were yet to be surrendered to hideous eaves-to-eaves McMansions.
Kids climbed trees and went fishing in a tinny without lifejackets and took risks, and learned from them. We were not in thrall to a screen.
No junk food chains. Pie shops and the local chippy were hardly models for healthy diets but they were an occasional treat not a habit.
Childhood obesity was not an epidemic. Kids playing outdoors was the norm. These days rates of anxiety disorders and depression are rising rapidly among teenagers.
You fucked up, you were at fault, not somebody else.
Where were all those swollen kiddies given the ubiquity of peanut butter sandwiches? Where was ADD? Kids paid attention. If not, parents were held responsible not the kid's genetics nor their teachers.
Social media meant crowding the neighbour's loungeroom to watch Superman on one of the few TVs in the street.
We had backyards and communities, we knew our neighbours.
There was no whiny doctrine of victimhood - the default position of taking, even seeking out offense.
Much to the horror of the nanny-staters, like Richard Glover, we had the sheer joy of "cracker night" which we managed to stretch out to about a week and which we survived. Intact.
Skateboarding and scooters were the domains of the young - we grew out of our toys.
Big brother was not manifest in western democracies. Our movements and written words (soon to be enhanced to include our spoken words and our faces) could not be tracked and recorded for sale to commercial greed and surrender to autocratic governments.
The music was far better. The one and only advantage conceded in the entire whinge list in Glover's book.
In 1972 the Whitlam Government was elected and over two decades of Tory torpor came to an end. This was the starting point for all of those progressive virtues that Richard Glover reserves for contemporary Australia - one now beset by one of the worst, most reactionary governments this country has ever had to suffer. A government is supposedly reflective of the society that elected it. Well Richard - Gough Whitlam or Tony Abbott and his claque of corporate leg-humpers, grifters and science-denying flat-earthers and religious freaks?
Australia in those earlier times was ready to embrace change and Glover's preferred contemporary Australia was shaped by those changes. He has the dynamics from those days to thank for it being "so spectacularly clear that life is much better now than it was".
The 60s and 70s, the "edifice of unfairness", was a lot more egalitarian, a lot less selfish and far less condescending than he claims. The "wogs", "dagoes" and "reffos" got a go without the interference of the then unknown phenomenon of the self-appointed Social Justice Warriors - those guardians of the interests of others who they patronisingly believe need them to step in and intervene on their behalf. Hypocrisy, condescension and racism all in one! Those immigrants and those gays and lesbians protesting in 1978 didn't need SJWs, they did it themselves - they took the risks and they made the efforts.
Back then, in the olden days, there were no Certificates Of Participation for coming last, not everyone got a prize, there was no incentive to blame others for our own mistakes, we didn't expect bean bags and espresso machines at work, we didn't think that employers should value us for just being precious us. No-one was special unless they proved it to be so, self-effacement was a positive trait, having a personal brand is a concept that would've generated justifiable derision (bullying in today's terms) and tattoos were for sailors and bikies not narcissistic wankers. Thank the various gods.
As annoying as The Land Before Avocado can be in parts it's still a worthwhile read - for the humour and for the aggravation; we geezers revel in aggravation.
However there are books with a similar theme that are miles ahead for sheer enjoyment and are highly recommended:
The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, Bill Bryson
One of my favourite authors, Bill Bryson is often laugh-out-loud funny, typically informative and always entertaining. No stranger to Australia (Down Under/In a Sunburned Country) this American's memoir of growing up in Des Moines, Iowa, during the 1950s and early 1960s is surprisingly relatable to Aussies of the same generation. And for me, and surely for many others, it's far more representative of those times than was Richard Glover's book even though it's set in a whole other country.
Bryson is quoted in The Land Before Avocado as recommending Richard Glover's earlier Flesh Wounds as "a funny, moving, very entertaining memoir".
Unreliable Memoirs, Clive James
Clive James admits that Unreliable Memoirs is just that - unreliable. Anecdotes from James' 40s and 50s childhood in Kogarah are enhanced with fictional elements but this does not detract from the hilarity. This is a book that should not be read in the quiet carriages of public transport.
WTF - buy all three.