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

The Greek Conspiracy (aka The Medicare Fraud

“Startin to think this whole multiculturalism business
isn’t as easy as politicians’d have us believe—
. . . I reckon it’s pretty tough on the migrants too. Take
this whole Greek Conspiracy shemozzle, aka the Medicare
Fraud.”

TMedicare fraud aftermath

This is a Christmas story of sorts, but a sad one. Beneath the Guardian’s screamer head for December 20, 1978 is a pic of the Salvation Army headquarters in Marrickville, blazing with Christmas lights, “a beacon for all to see.”

Towards the end of 1978, the stories Tom’s been covering for The Voice have got him thinking, reconsidering his smart-alec views about people, especially ‘wogs and dagos.’ What really brought home to him the inequality experienced by people on his patch were stories about blatant discrimination toward local Aboriginal people, and the plight of the Greek pensioners caught up in the Greek Conspiracy (aka The Medicare Fraud).

The Guardian’s headline and sub-head don’t make it immediately clear to us what the story is about, but Tom gives us the low-down in ‘The Greek Conspiracy.’ It’s obvious that whoever he’s talking to (at the Courtie’s, as usual), knows next-to-nothing about the Medicare Fraud. Basically, back in April that year hundreds of elderly Greek migrants were arrested and taken to court, accused of defrauding Medicare with spurious health problems, and they and many other Greek migrants had their pensions stopped.

The Guardian’s article is not about the so-called conspiracy and the arrests and convictions—of 181 arrested and tried, only four were found guilty of defrauding the Commonwealth, and three of them actually pleaded guilty! But the government continued harassing many more elderly Greek people it considered were part of ‘the conspiracy.’

What the Guardian article does cover is the staunch advocacy and efforts of community welfare agencies to get conspiracy charges dropped and compensation paid to the wrongly accused. Tom is dubious about the likelihood of compensation being paid, but has sympathy for the people swept up in the raids.

Startin to think this whole multiculturalism business

isn’t as easy as politicians’d have us believe—

. . . I reckon it’s pretty tough on the migrants too. Take

This whole Greek Conspiracy shemozzle, aka the Medicare

Fraud.

In dawn raids, the Commonwealth cops entered 160 homes and five

doctors’ surgeries an arrested 181 Greek pensioners,

an chucked em in the cells.

700 people on Social

Security had their benefits taken away and their

Payments stopped without any warnin. Not a good time

to be a Greek, specially a pensioner! Well that was eight

months ago, an now it’s nearly Christmas. 

. . . so many of the poor buggers’re struggling to live,

pay rent, buy groceries. A few of them

have actually dropped dead or killed themselves from the stress.

An there’s plenty who dunno how they’re gonna buy Christmas

presents for their kiddies. Seems like they haven’t had a fair go

We’ll hear more about local community welfare groups and social services in other posts. Life in Newtown 40 years ago wasn’t easy for anyone except the ‘big boys’ running gambling clubs, brothels, and other illegal activities.

But for the small fry: the poor, the single mums, the latchkey kids, the homeless, the ‘abos,’ and the ‘wogs’ and ‘dagos’ life was a daily struggle.

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

Life wasn’t meant to be easy

PEOPLE KICKED OUT OF HOMES
While people sleep in the streets, government migrant flats have been standing empty

Kicked out of homes

Once again, a screamer headline across the front page of the weekly Guardian, this time on October 25, 1978, teamed with an incongruous photo of a Surf Rescue speedboat breasting the waves at Bondi, (a piece of advertorial)

No houses for the poor

Steep rise in rent cost

“While people sleep in the streets, government migrant flats have been standing empty for up to three years.

 “The Marrickville area has one of the highest percentages of people looking for emergency housing in the State.

 “According to a recent survey, 40 family groups, involving nearly 100 people sought emergency housing within a month.”

The Guardian estimated that “one and a half percent of the Marrickville population —a third more than the State average” was homeless. It quoted the NSW homeless organisation Shelter, that

“people are now sleeping in cars and parks —as in the 1930’s depression. Meanwhile government flats at Annandale and Marrickville are standing vacant.”

This story, and several others about poverty, homelessness and evictions— especially ones related to Sydney University’s expansion beyond its 1860s City Road site —led me to put much of this material in Buzz’s voice, in ‘Life wasn’t meant to be easy.’

If you haven’t met Buzz yet, she’s a social justice warrior who lives in an anarchist squat and teaches car maintenance at WEA (Workers Education Association). She’s very outspoken about the injustices she sees around her, and frequently quotes items she‘s read in the Newtown Voice.

“Life wasn’t meant to be easy” was a famous quote in 1971 by Australian Federal Liberal Party leader (later Prime Minister)  Malcolm Fraser. A wealthy grazier and powerful politician, his quote was resented by ordinary Australians  who understood it to mean “stop complaining about your lot.”  Buzz wasn’t going to take that lying down!

Jeez, Harry, when Malcolm Fraser told us

life wasn’t meant to be easy—the smug

patronisin bastard—I didn’t think it was

gunna get this bloody tough.

… Seems like things are almost as

bad as in the Depression, specially in

Newie an Marrickville. Welfare groups say

lotsa people are sleepin in parks an cars.

An guess what? Accordin to The Voice

there’s plenty of places empty that are

owned by the government—blocksa flats

for migrants in Marrickville and Annandale,

But never been used. Jeez, Harry, I dunno,

where’s this country goin? What happened

to the lucky country? To a fair go for every

one? I reckon we need a bloody revolution!

An I mean Bloody!

Sadly, many of the issues that affected people in 1978 have come around again.

Buzz has some strong words to say about Sydney Uni’s relentless expansion beyond City Road into surrounding streets, and the added effect of students sharehousing on the shortage of affordable housing in the area. I’ll cover the Uni effect in later posts.

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

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