Old Australia

Back when The Age was still a quality newspaper a regular commentator writing for it was Robert Manne. You don’t hear much of Manne anymore, which is a pity. He’s an erudite, highly intelligent, articulate humanitarian. Occasionally those to the left are accused of being woolly headed sentimentalists. Sometimes that’s a fair charge. It’s not something you could ever describe Manne as being though. Though he has a perspective that might be described as social democratic, his articles always had a ring of conviction beyond mere personal opinion. They were meticulous, logical, and persuasive to the point of seeming irrefutable.

I read a speech of his yesterday about his experience of being Australian. He is of migrant stock, born in Melbourne, his Jewish parents migrating here just in time before the war. His was the migrant experience like so many others of that time, growing up slightly different from everyone else and knowing it. Nonetheless he is grateful, explaining how he never felt discriminated against.

It’s this experience, growing up in a friendly, safe society, but with an awareness of being slightly apart, which has doubtless shaped his views. What others had no cause to question he could reflect on from a different, curious, and highly intelligent perspective. The best become what they are formed by experience, and don’t assume it like a doctrinaire coat. That’s why his writing is persuasive; the reason surely that he found social democracy to be the most humane of positions.

His speech made good reading, instructive and fascinating. At one point he makes mention of the bitter divide between Protestant and Catholic Australians back in the 1950’s. It was something I was aware of, but which seems barely credible given the secular times we live in. Like it or not, that sort of secular rivalry is now irrelevant.

I knew of this battle because of my parents. My mother was Church of England, my father Catholic. My mum used to tell stories of how her father forbid her to go out with Catholics. And my father’s mother – my grandma – refused to go to the wedding of my mum and dad because it was a mixed marriage.

It’s amazing to consider such deep-rooted sectarian bitterness, especially as there is no sign of it now. By rights I should be Catholic, though I was christened Protestant because my father couldn’t care less. In fact I would be the most despised of types, an Irish Catholic if old prejudices still held.

My father’s family was strongly Irish, though by the time I was born they had lived here four generations. In the way of the Irish all over the world they retained sentimental links to Ireland – proudly and independently Australian, but also happy to proclaim that part of their heritage that was Irish. Part of that, I learned, was disdain for the English.

I learned a lot of this growing up from my grandmother, who was a smart, fierce woman. I seem to recall stories she told me about Archbishop Mannix, a legendary figure in the Australian Catholic church. She was a solemn churchgoer who also did volunteer work on behalf of the church. My grandparents house had Irish memorabilia scattered throughout it, though neither had ever been there – in fact neither ever set foot outside of Australia.

My father was worshiped by his mother, but surely the thing that most disappointed her was how he abandoned the church she was most devoted to – and which, seemingly, was so much a part of her identity. He was a modern man though, contemptuous of religion and with little regard for his alleged Irish heritage.

In his speech Manne makes mention of the mystery of how the Protestant/Catholic divide came to such a complete end. I suspect it passed on with the generations. Those who grew up post-war were exposed to a different, less prejudiced world. I’m sure for the likes of my father much of that must have seemed like nonsense, especially in light of the events of the war, and in the face of love.

I’m thankful for it, not just for my own sake, but because it was nonsense, as things like that always are. Fortunately for Australia it now appears as an odd, anomalous moment in time.

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