KIDS GO TO SCHOOL HUNGRY

Kids hungry0002 cropped

This story from June 21, 1978, and a similar one, LATCHKEY KIDS OUT ON STREET, are clear evidence of the levels of poverty in Newtown and Marrickville in the 1970s. I combined them into one prose poem, ‘Latchkey Kids’, basically a reworking of both newspaper articles, attributing  it to the Newtown Voice.

 Unlike stories of bombings, break-ins, brothels, and gambling dens, these examples of families’ hardship and the schools and welfare organisations struggling to assist them did not rouse the Editor to thunder. No “editor’s rant” for these, nor the ones about discrimination against Aboriginal people in the community.

Talks on a feeding program

“The inner-city school of St. Peter’s is talking about setting up a feeding program. It is worried about the level of nutrition children are receiving.”

The article makes it clear that staff were reluctant to talk much about the proposed feeding program, fearing parents would be upset about the implied criticism. However, the idea had already been enthusiastically discussed at Marrickville Council, which is how the Voice got wind of it.

“Under the Schools Commission’s assisted schools scheme, St. Peter’s has already taken steps to improve student nutrition. It has installed a milkshake machine and supplies health-giving milkshakes.”

Staff admitted the children needed extra sustenance, and that giving them breakfast first made it easier to teach them.

The proposed scheme would require the canteen to be opened early so that children could have breakfast at school.

Sadly, St. Peter’s did not receive the grant funding needed to set up the feeding program. Darlington School had previously applied for a grant for the same purpose, but also did not receive funding. Teachers at Darlington were paying for children’s breakfasts out of their own pockets.

Latchkey kids copy

Three months later, almost to the day, this story on September 20, 1978 also involves children going to school hungry. This time, it’s church-run activities programs for so-called ‘latchkey kids’ after school and in the holidays.

The Petersham Baptist Church, (renamed Marrickville Baptist for poetic purposes), had been waiting since the end of May for the next tranche of funding from the Federal Minister for Social Security (Senator Guilfoyle).

The church was paying for the after-school programs itself, while waiting for a reply from the Minister, and was rapidly running into debt.

“ ‘Latchkey kids’ are children whose parents are at work all day; many come from one-parent families. Often they have house keys on a string round their necks so they can let themselves into their empty homes after school.

“Some children were also coming to school just after 7am. They had been given money to buy a packet of chips for breakfast.”

Three years earlier the church had seen the need for after-school and holiday programs for these children. [It’s possible some of them would have been in the graveyard sniffing petrol.] Nearly all of its funding was through various federal government schemes, including the recently scrapped Australian Assistance Plan.

Now, with no sign of the funding, the church was considering cancelling or at least severely slashing all its programs.

On September 13, the church’s minister wrote to Minister Guilfoyle, threatening to appeal to the Federal Ombudsman. That same day, he received a letter from the Minister, informing him that the $50,000 grant had been cancelled.

The Voice reported “the church’s small congregation has made massive efforts”—including stalls, afternoon teas, and jumble sales— “to keep the service going and keep it cheap.

“However, the church says there is no way it can continue to operate without funding, as demand for these services has mushroomed because of the area’s pressing social needs.”

You can read more about Newtown Voices, about me, and where to buy the book at newtownvoices

The Graveyard

“Scores of Newtown schoolchildren have become addicted to petrol sniffing.

“Police and medical authorities have been shocked at the extent of the addiction.

Graveyard

This front page screamer from the weekly Guardian, May 24, 1978, and the story below, affected me deeply, and I hope, also moved the readers of the day. The effect was such that the poem I wrote in response to the story was a completely different style from most of the others.

“Scores of Newtown schoolchildren have become addicted to petrol sniffing.

Police and medical authorities have been shocked at the extent of the addiction.

“An appeal to all the shopkeepers in the area has been made by a distraught Newtown mother whose eleven-year-old son is getting a ‘Buzz’ from petrol sniffing.

“Many shopkeepers are unaware that children are buying lighter fluid for this purpose,” she said.

“My local fruit shop proprietor last week told me he sold my son two cans of lighter fluid in two days, and said he thought he wanted it to start a fire.

“All the time he was telling me this, I knew he knew what he really wanted it for,” she said.

“She told the GUARDIAN that there are many places where children, as young as six years old, have been meeting and getting off on “the Buzz”.

“One of the places visited by the GUARDIAN was the old graveyard at St Stephens Church, Camperdown. GUARDIAN staff were horrified to find, scattered around in a very small area, 20 Ronson Lighter Fluid cans — all empty!

“My son has been known to go through six cans a week,” she said. 

The Guardian article detailed the horrific physical and mental effects of the kids’ petrol sniffing, information I repeated in my poem, ‘The Graveyard’:

The shopkeepers know,

when the kids buy lighter fluid day after day after day. They

don’t want to see the sweating, the sores around the nose

and mouth, the terrors. They’d rather pretend the kids are

‘just kids’ out to light a few fires. 

[The reason that all cigarette lighters these days are disposable is the result of legislation passed some time in the mid 1980s mandating non-refillable lighters, specifically to tackle the problem of lighter fluid sniffing. Correct disposal and recycling of disposable lighters is an incidental and less horrific problem.]

In October 2017, I went back to visit St Stephen’s cemetery, Newtown, after an absence of five or six years. Despite regular caretaker work, many of the older graves had collapsed completely, and without these landmarks I could not find the Admiral’s wife’s grave, which I used to visit often, as a bee colony had established inside her tomb through a crack. I would watch the bees flying to and from the grave, and on warm days there’d be a delicious honey smell. I wrote about this in the opening stanza of ‘The Graveyard’ before moving to the grimmer details.

In the long grass

beneath crumbling headstones or caged

behind rusting iron fences lie grave slabs

cracked and fallen. Bees hum industriously

around the admiral’s wife’s last home,

sweet murmurings and scented flight

purposeful in the hot noon.

Caged grave

A caged grave, not yet collapsed

Sadly, I fear the Admiral’s wife’s last home has collapsed and disappeared. The bees have been given modern new hives closer to the graveyard wall. However, the giant Moreton Bay fig mentioned in the Guardian article is still growing near the church, and is believed to be about 170 years old. It has been photographed many times, including several times by me.

The Graveyard’ is one of only three poems in the verse novel that are not linked to any particular character speaking or thinking. The first is the Prologue, in which the street itself seems to express the attitudes of ‘old Australians’ to the newcomers from overseas.

Towards the end of the book, ‘What Tom doesn’t know’—like ‘The Graveyard’ — is the spirit of Newtown speaking.

 

You can read more about Newtown Voices, about me, and where to buy the book at newtownvoices