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June 21st 2018 print

Peter O'Brien

Back in Time for Tripe

As LP Hartley observed in the opening sentence of The Go-Between, 'the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.' Indeed, they do and did, but as the ABC's latest Annabel Crabb production demonstrates, the national broadcaster will be forever the same -- until, that is, someone fixes it

vauxhall IIPropaganda can be subtle when the underlying message is delivered by a kind of seeping osmosis that, were we not by now so familiar with the way advocates of fashionable causes operate, might go largely unnoticed by those whose wish is simply to be entertained. What inspires this thought is Annabel Crabb’s new ABC show Back In Time For Dinner, billed as a romping exploration of the way our forebears lived in the far-off Fifties and Sixties. “That might be fun,” said my wife, so we watched what turned out to be both an exercise in feminist victimology and viewing the past from an entirely contemporary perspective.

Not content with the sort of stock documentary built around images of ice chests, FJs and footage of Footscray winning the 1954 Grand Final, Ms Crabb’s latest vehicle is a total-immersion exercise featuring the Ferrones – dad Peter, mum Carol, eldest son Julian, teenage daughter Sienna and ten-year-old Olivia — the show’s human guinea pigs. A mock period house, apparently their real-life home transformed, is the setting, with every decorating cliché of the period included. The aim, we are told, is to ‘discover how the food we eat changed the way we live, the fabric of the nation and defined family roles, starting in the post-war 1950s. But there is a bit more to the show than that.

Episode One quickly establishes that a housewife’s life was a labor-intensive ordeal of preparing tripe and vegetables for dinner and washing the family’s clothes in a copper.  She was up before everyone else, preparing breakfast and lunches for all, with the show stressing the poor woman had no time to rest during the day.  And it must have been pretty rough because it reduced Carol to tears after day one. To punctuate all that domestic hard labor viewers were treated to a visit by June Dally Watkins who advise, if memory serves, on how to host an afternoon tea to celebrate the opening of the Melbourne Olympics.

By contrast, life was pretty good for patriarchal Peter. With absolutely no domestic chores to do, he stooges off to work in the morning and comes home at night to find dinner laid before him.  The only downside for Dad, it seems, is that sometimes he has to eat alone, as Carol had already eaten with the kids, who also, it seems, had little to do in the way of chores. We got to see Julian getting used to the idea and life of a pampered male, having absolutely nothing to do at home except complain about the meals put in front of him.

Episode Two, the Sixties, gave us more in the same vein, emphasising how Mum’s burdens hadn’t eased that much, despite washing machines and other labour-saving innovations. The culturally oppressed Sienna’s lot wasn’t upbeat either, forced to leave school and begin work as a secretary while brother Julian is encouraged to continue with his studies. Relishing his role as an individual ordained by chromosomes to dominate, Julian points out that further education would be wasted on Sienna, who will marry and devote her life and human potential to preparing the next generation of tripe.  He does have one worry, however, as he is portrayed as approaching the age where he might be conscripted to fight somebody else’s futile war in Vietnam. As conscription age back then was 20 and Julian is still at school, he must be a slow learner — either that or the show’s scriptwriters were taking liberties to deliver a Lefty “lesson”.

Why am I wasting my time on all this, I hear you ask? Well, as I said earlier, the show is clearly an attempt to weave yet another thread into the ever-evolving narrative of feminist victimology. Look how far the modern woman has come, what hurdles she had to overcome! What debt do we still owe womanhood for the alleged sins of the past?

I don’t have to look very far to see two counter examples of this narrative: my parents.

Yes, my mother was a housewife, but I don’t believe she ever thought of herself as a victim. As for Dad, he did rather more than push off to work every morning and return in time for dinner.  He gave up his metallurgy studies, joined the RAAF and never made it back to uni, instead becoming a weather forecaster.  From the time I can remember he cut our hair (six kids) and tailored our clothes. Dad built the garage to house our Vauxhall Wyvern (just like the one pictured above) and when it needed a new gearbox, Dad put it in.  When we decided to upgrade from an outside dunny to a septic system, he dug the hole and built the add-on room to house it.  I could go on.  Not quite the waited-on lordly lifestyle Dad Ferrone enjoys.

My other example is my wife, who transitioned from teenager to young woman during the late Fifties.  Her father did, indeed, send her to work as a secretary and this grated on her. Nonetheless, she persevered and, at age 21, undertook nursing training.  Following graduation she travelled to the UK where she worked for a year before driving a Kombi van around Europe.  Then she took a bus trip from London to Colombo across the Middle East and central Asia.  She subsequently gained certificates in midwifery, which she practiced in a remote village in the highlands of PNG, and community health, which she practiced in the Queensland Aboriginal Health Service in Queensland, including a stint at Kowanyama.  Definitely not a victim.

Which brings me to my own experience.  I prefer to think of the Vietnam War as, rather, the Battle of Vietnam, thus putting it in the context of the wider conflict we know as the Cold War.  I believed then, and I still believe, that what we were doing was helping to prevent the spread of communism.  To what extent the resolve shown by the West in maintaining its efforts for such a long period in South Vietnam, albeit ultimately unsuccessful at the local level, contributed to the eventual fall of the Berlin Wall we will never know. That’s an academic point I’m probably not qualified to debate. However, what infuriates me is the the show’s portrayal of Diggers who served in Vietnam as hapless victims.

I was a professional soldier, so in no way could I claim to be a victim. Most of my Diggers were National Servicemen and they were bloody good.  It’s true that many, if not most, eligible young men of the time dreaded being called up. But once in, the vast majority embraced the experience and were proud to take up the tradition of their fathers and grandfathers. And I was proud to lead them, those men who remain my friends to this day.  Nobody who did not want to serve in South Vietnam was compelled.  I had one Digger who came to me and said he didn’t want to go and I was happy to transfer him out.  I made no judgement about him personally, but no sensible officer would want an unwilling combatant under his command.   Those National Servicemen who were killed, wounded or suffered PTSD were indeed victims in one limited sense.  But they were not victims of our society and depicting them as such demeans their service and sacrifice.

“The past is a foreign country,” LP Hartley observed in the opening sentence of The Go-Between, “they do things differently there.” Indeed, they do and did, but as Back In Time For Dinner demonstrates, the ABC will be forever the same — until, that is, someone fixes it.

Comments [11]

  1. padraic says:

    Thanks Peter for bringing that dreadful show to our attention. Like you and your wife, when I saw the promos for it I thought it would be worth watching. Big mistake. I watched bits of the 50s and 60s episodes but gave up after that. In the 50s one I switched off when I saw the way it was belittling previous generations, particularly when the mother could not make a pot of tea. She put the teacup-strainer on top of the teapot, put the tea leaves in the strainer and then tried to pour the water in, at the same time collapsing in a teary heap of stereotype helpless weeping female. (My mother, if alive, would have thrown a brick at the TV). In another scene she almost has a nervous breakdown when confronted with a frozen chicken requiring dissection. And then you get the pathetic bloke. Not only do you get the feminist victim treatment with the woman, he never mows the lawn etc and comes over as a migrant victim because his dad drank wine at home and did not join in with Aussies at the 6 o’clock swill. Rubbish – I used to walk pass those pubs in Sydney with blokes spilling out onto the footpath and there were plenty of “New Australians” of all nationalities there having a quick drink before heading home. The show, like many contemporary advertisements, has airbrushed out the “white anglo-celtic male”. The only good thing about it was the emphasis on tripe – very appropriate for show.

    • PT says:

      I saw the teapot episode. She seemed to think the strainer was a part of her overpriced cappuccino machine!

      Her histrionics over jointing the chicken would have been believable if she were a vegetarian, which she isn’t who has never handled raw meat – also not true, although apparently her husband does most of the cooking! She also swallowed whole the claim people lived tripe! Some did, but it was eaten because it was cheap. I also question whether we still had butter rationing in the early ’50′s. If we could get rid of petrol rationing in 1950 when all oil was imported, and didn’t have meat rationing, why would butter still be rationed?

      Then there was the constant “I’m bored and unfulfilled” stuff. They forget we still had a sense of community in the 1950′s and ’60′s. She’d have caught up with friends and neighbours at least to some extent. Pathetic!

    • padraic says:

      Upon reflection, I know that my mother would never have thrown a brick at the TV – a bit of hyperbole on my part. Having grown up during the Depression she was fairly frugal and radiated common sense. She may have changed channels or switched off the TV.

  2. PT says:

    One of the most offensive aspects was the moaning about “oh the poor girls had to leave school at 14 whilst the boys could go on to university” rubbish.

    How many people went to university in 1960, prior to the university revolution of the 1960′s? I know even in the early ’80′s only roughly 20% of students completed high school in WA – I remember seeing a Nationwide segment bemoaning it. The majority of boys in the early ’60′s left school at 14, and many did work far worse than being a secretary (couldn’t they have told the girl how to load paper in a typewriter!!!).

    Also women did attend University prior to 1970! Pilger’s mother graduated from the University of Sydney in the early ’20′s. It really depended on the family’s circumstances and whether they valued education. I’m sick of this one eyed feminist whinge. They don’t care about “gender imbalances” when women make up the majority of enrolments or graduations!

    • padraic says:

      Correct PT. I just checked my 1960 (final year) class photo at Sydney University and counted 68 female students and 108 male students. Of the teaching staff there were 5 women and 7 men, with one of the female staff being absent from the photo. Each year throughout the course a girl always came first in the exams. It did not worry us. As in WA many of my schoolmates at High School left school at the end of the Intermediate (aged 14 or 15) and got jobs in banks, trade apprentices, junior journalists, the Public Service and so on and no one worried, It was considered normal. Now, a snobbery has developed which dictates you have to go to Uni and emerge with either a solid degree or what in our days did not exist and if it did would have been considered a “micky mouse” degree.

  3. LBLoveday says:

    Made me recall the Nasho era. My letter arrived – it was before the televised drawing of birthday dates – but I did not open it for 3 days, as I’d, very unusually, not decided what to do if I’d been drawn as I was at Uni (pre-1970, with females in my classes in what even today are seen as male-dominated subjects) and could have gotten a deferral, but should I apply to defer or go straight in? No dread on my part, I was quite happy at the thought of being in the army, but not keen enough to volunteer for Nasho, much less the regular army. Finally opened the letter and all that pondering was wasted – I was not selected.

    Being called up, and, or going to Vietnam had very different affects on people I knew well:

    One friend, like PO’B, a professional soldier, straight from school to Duntroon, happily off to Vietnam to put his training into practice.
    Another had “the best time of my life” in Vietnam, but he was in the Engineering Corps assigned to supply and learned to drink Melbourne Bitter and smoke cigarettes, the latter habit taking 30 years to break.
    A brother-in-law did officer training (why a Nasho was selected I have no idea) but never went to war, had a great time, learned a lot.
    Another brother-in-law was called up but went AWOL from initial training (we’d told her he was a dropkick, but to no avail)

    Now the sorry story. A friend who volunteered for Nasho came back a very changed man – morose, demons – married and they adopted a Vietnamese girl, marriage broke up and he went and lived on a boat by himself for years, with his only visitor the adopted daughter. Finally remarried and of all things hit an Emu when riding his motor bike with his wife in the sidecar and she was thrown out and died.

    Of course the Emu has nothing to do with Vietnam, but the rest has – he was driving a troop carrier, with strict orders to not stop for anything to minimise the chances of ambush, a little girl walked in front of him onto the road (whether sent there by the Viet Cong as his superiors reckoned or not does not matter to him), and, obeying orders, he ran her over.

    • Peter OBrien says:

      LB, many Nashos were selected for officer training which they undertook on a six month course at Scheyville in NSW near Sydney. And they were just as good officers as the non commissioned nashos were diggers. Many transferred to permanent commissions at the end of their two years.

      • Doubting Thomas says:

        I ran across several of them in my time in the RAAF, including one on my Staff College course some years after the end of the Vietnam War. From our perspective they were indistinguishable from other Army officers.

      • LBLoveday says:

        I was looking rather narrowly, comparing perceived value to the army of bro-inlaw being in for just 2 years to the Duntroon man’s 20 years and another friend who enrolled after Nasho days, did officer training and stayed his 20 years.
        From bro-inlaw’s development aspect it was great; we can never know what would have happened if …, but it unlikely that the sparky would have held senior positions in a large manufacturing company (it was decades ago) and a bank, and been CEO of a medium-size enterprise otherwise.

  4. oldsailor says:

    I was a war baby (1942) with a violent father who was, I believe, ruined by his war, which included naval action at Dakar, the Coral Sea, and Leyte Gulf. Thanks for the article and the comments, which bring back many memories. I didn’t see the subject show, as I no longer neither watch, listen to, nor capitalise their abc, which I see as a cesspit.
    At 76, my memory is fallible, but I don’t remember doing “chores”. Still, that word is, I suppose, an improvement over ‘the getgo’ which I’ve seen used in the Oz recently.

  5. Lo says:

    Tripe is offal. My mother was very careful with her household funds but we were never fed tripe. Ugh.