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The New Australians

Brisbane looks approximately like this, when I write. When we arived, nearly half a century ago, it looked more like the picture below. The tallest structure by far was the tower of the City Hall.


Brisbane 8th March 1973


  It was about 10 am when we left the air-conditioned train, and walked into the late summer day in the new sphere of our activity that we had chosen for ourselves ─ Brisbane. It was hot, but it was a different “hot” than we had before experienced. Except maybe a few days around my thirtieth birthday, when we had sailed through the tropical region near western African coast. Perhaps not quite so hot, but here the presence of what is known as “humidity”, something previously unknown to us, made it different. This humidity simply is there, except for a few winter months, and one has to get used to it. Nowadays I simply turn on the air-conditioning, but in the early days we couldn’t afford such a luxury!

It was obvious to us immediately that we had indeed found ourselves
in a provincial town. That’s what Brisbane was at the time, without a doubt, even though it was beginning to grow quite rapidly. But it had a lot of catching up to do, indeed, to get anywhere near Sydney or Melbourne, not even mentioning London!

At the beginning we had not yet realised how privileged we were, having passed for British migrants. All the others amongst the government sponsored, no matter where they came from, be it Italy, Greece, France, Germany, Poland or Czechoslovakia, or anywhere else, were accommodated at Wacol. Several years later I was coming there quite regularly when I worked as a government endorsed interpreter for the Czech and Slovak migrants. In a sparsely wooded area, scattered around several administrative buildings, dining room and canteen, were rows of mostly prefabricated little houses, where the “new Australians”, as we all were collectively called, lived. This soubriquet could bear a kind of cunning undertone, depending on where it came from. From the Wacol camp it was a walk of about two kilometres to the train station, which took you to the City, about 15 km distant. Some bus connection was available to the suburb of Inala, also several kilometres distant. Whoever planned this did so rather cleverly, because built-in there was little incentive for fresh migrants to stay in this government sponsored accommodation for longer than the six months to a year, which was normally allowed. The focus was rather on providing the initiative for them to find themselves jobs and move elsewhere as fast as possible. Wacol camp worked for nearly half a century; nowadays it has been replaced with the facility for detention of recent breakers of the law who find themselves in remanding custody.


We Became Pommies!


Whenever I could derive some advantages from it, I call myself a Briton, as you must have already noticed. Here in Australia in the 1970s it was particularly true. Not that I would fool anyone with my accent, which remained decisively un-British, but squeezing as much as possible out of my connections with that island realm the population of which even now  isn’t sure if it is or isn’t part of Europe, made sense. Much as avoiding the label “Aitalians” lumbered on anyone else. The greatest advantage of being a Pom, however, was in the accommodation that had been provided for members of this proud race. No one is sure either of where the expression “Pom” or “Pommie” came from; it may have derived from the colour of the pomegranate apple, which is rather pale, like the recent arrivals to Australia would have been. Others say that it is an abbreviation of the words “Prisoner of the Mother Country”. In either case it isn’t particularly flattering, though this did not bother us much at all. The beauty was the accommodation at Yungaba.


Accommodation at Yungaba was strictly for the British migrants only. In these days of political correctness something like that would be unthinkable, of course, as totally discriminatory against the non-British migrants. As it was, we could spend there up to a year (provided we got a special extension), while paying only some symbolic rent. We could also eat at the facility provided there, at a fraction of cost that we would normally have to spend. If one used all these advantages properly, and lived there for a year while having a full employment it was possible to save enough for a deposit on a house. However, we had not taken any advantage of all this. When, years later, I was describing this to the then Minister for Immigration, Alfred Ruddock, he was reluctant to believe me. I told him there must be some sort of a record in their documents, and that it could probably be verified. As it happened, we had spent at Yungaba one whole night. This is how it happened:

After our arrival from Sydney on an overnight train, we had left the two suitcases in our room at Yungaba, and went outside, eager to see what Brisbane looked like. We crossed the river on a ferry, and found ourselves in the centre of the town. On one of the main roads, accidentally we had found an employment agency that specialised in office jobs. Dáša, who had worked in London as an accounts clerk for a Finnish company, and had happened to have the references she had received from them on her person, decided to give it a try. She went inside, while I wandered around. Fifteen minutes or so later she came out with an address she was to go to. We took a bus; it wasn’t very far. Another fifteen minutes, and she was out with the news that she can start working on Monday. It was Friday afternoon ─ we went back to Yungaba, where there was an accommodation officer. We told her that we had one job between us already, and that we would like her to find out if we could get some reasonably inexpensive flat. She nearly fell of her chair, but made a couple of phone calls and came out with a possibility. We went to a place in Wooloongabba, not far from the famous cricket ground, and had made an agreement with the landlady to move in the next day. So we had one night to spend at the government given facility, and in the morning we were gone. We simply could not wait long enough to become independent, a free souls, call it what you like…


Penny ─ our first landlady

    Our new landlady had introduced herself as Penny; she must have been close to eighty and she lived in one of four small flats her original “Queenslander” had been converted into. Penny must have come from one of the families of early settlers because, as she told us, she had once inherited a large chunk of land in Surfers Paradise on the Gold Coast. She sold it for peanuts, because being a finicky girl she wanted to buy herself some clothes. She knew that if she had sat on the property, she would now be worth a few millions! Still, in her old age she was left with a place to live and the rental money from three small flats, so not much to complain about.
    There were three rooms in our flat; two more than we had in London: one large, originally the kitchen, next to it what used to be the entrance hall, now living room, and one bedroom barely big enough to accommodate a double bed. There was also a separate bathroom with shower and a flashing toilet, which was outside attached to the house. We were told to be mindful of the possibility of some redback spiders lurking underneath the lid, apparently a common occurence in the semi-tropical Queensland. Up until fairly recently, the Brisbane suburban houses typically had had the so called “thunderboxes”, latrines built separately in the yard, and that’s when the redbacks had flourished. This close relative to the infamous black widow, with a distinct red dot on its back, has been known to often show unhealthy interest in the parts of male anatomy that are most vulnerable. The pain their bite causes is legendary, and it can recur for many years to come, at least according to the lore.  I have never seen any of these unpleasant arachnid characters under the lids though, however:
    The first night it was rather hot and humid; the shower was inviting. Dáša succumbed, but after a few minutes she had suddenly ran out of the bathroom in a most alarmed manner, screaming, wet, and naked. I had naturally appreciated her state of undress, but then I noticed what it was that had stirred her up so much. Behind her from the bathroom, and in pursuit of her, ran the largest cockroach either of us had ever seen, up to the point. Actually, I had no idea that it was a cockroach; to me it only looked big and menacing. I have seen larger ones since, but not by much. The thing was pursuing the victim it had to all appearances intended to devour, but it got scared and disappeared somewhere under the furniture when it saw it would not be able to overcome my steely determination of a knightly protector.

    Living in Australia, one has to realise that sometimes one has to share the space with the cockroaches. They could grow their body to the size of about 5 centimetres, and with the antennas measure well over 10 cm. Don’t despair if you happen to have a cockroach or two of anything near this size, as this means that all is relatively well. You just take their existence on mind and both of you could go your separate ways. You may, of course, assume a different attitude, wishing to aggressively eradicate all cockroaches in your living space. You may even fall under the illusion that you have won such a war. A cockroach however is a peripatetic creature, and it can under the right circumstances even grow wings. A house, temporarily devoid of cockroaches presents to a cockroach an irresistible challenge!

    I have come to the conclusion that towards cockroaches one has to assume a pragmatic stance. Which is what most Australians do; they have simply learnt to live with them. They even stage cockroach races and bet on them, because this is what members of this nation like the most. The giant burrowing cockroach (Macropanesthia rhinoceros), which could grow to more than 8 cm, and live over 10 years, has even reached a status of domestic pet in some households. But these are the extremes ─ most of us have to come to terms with cockroaches half the size or much less. But beware! When you hear some people, particularly new Australians who might take their existence as a personal insult, say they had got rid of all cockroaches; it could mean that they have overdone it. They now live in an environment full of chemicals and various poisons, which you have to breathe and touch. Experience has taught me that it is much better to be prepared to occasionally see some cockroach stick its head out here and there. Yes, by all means have various traps, organic repellents, etc. placed in strategic places, but do not overdo it. I also discovered that where you have a few large of these insects, there tend to be fewer of the small ones. Perhaps the big ones eat them or chase them away, who knows? The biggest problem you have when your house is full of the small cockroaches. That’s where your only option, short of a demolition, is having the place gassed out, while moving at least temporarily away!


The successful businessmen I knew


Do they belong here too? Well, I suppose they do! Without them, both of us would have been unemployed. In England it wasn’t easy to find a decent job. I had tried several and none of them was much good. Thus I was really curious to see if what they all said, that jobs were easy to come by in Australia, was true. I went to the government employment agency. They had interviewed me, looked into their records, and made some calls. There was a job of a storeman going with a small company, I was eventually told. It was only three stops away from our flat by train, and I was accepted immediately. It turned out to be a family business run by “white Russians”, the descendants of those who after the revolution in 1917 had fled to China, and who, when around 1950 the ground got a bit too hot for them even there, had moved farther on, to Australia. The patriarch of the family was named Basil, and under this name he had opened a coffee shop in Brisbane, which, still in existence, by now would be ran by at least the third, maybe fourth generation of the family. It ceased to trade as a street shop many years ago however, and by the time I came in it was selling coffee wholesale, together with some delicatessens. My job, working with a French fellow and a new Australian as well as myself, to assemble the orders that the three reps who worked for the company on road had been sending in.

When recently I had been looking something up on the Internet, I happened to come across a copy of an article from a local paper issued in 1953. It was about the court case against certain Basil, owner of a coffee shop on the main street. He had not complied with the orders issued by the government of the time, regarding the amount of the chemical DDT that he should have used against the cockroaches in his shop! He was found guilty, ordered to pay the fine of 3 pounds and another 6 shillings for the costs. Basil’s non-use of this insecticide, then regarded as miraculous, now known to be lethal, and his subsequent conviction, had probably contributed to the fact that his business was moved away from the main commercial district and turned wholesale. Thus surviving in the tough competition for at least another sixty odd years and providing a living to an extended family of Russian migrants. I doubt that by now you’d be alive, but still: Good on you, Basil!

Being a storeman wasn’t terribly inspiring job, and after a few months I was beginning to look for something better. I decided to try my luck selling carpets. The company’s name was House of Axminster. Axminster carpets have been around for about two and a half centuries, after an English weaver in Devon decided to emulate the Turkish carpet makers. As it was, we did sell some of the rather expensive Axminsters to well-to-do people of Brisbane who wanted to show up a bit, but the emphases were on much cheaper products of Asian markets. My immediate boss, the Sales Manager, was Jim Smith, a guy of about my age, who too arrived into the country recently, and who was a carpet salesman in England. He was one of the examples of business success that could be achieved here and quickly. Within a couple of years (by then I had already left) he had his own company, which he named Carpet Call. Soon his company became number one in carpet sales in the country. That wasn’t enough to him. He created a sister company, Curtain Call, which turned out to be just as successful. There wouldn’t be too many Australians who had not walked on Jim’s carpets nor had any windows covered by his curtains. As could perhaps be understood, working under a boss as highly motivated as this, wasn’t easy. Jim on every opportunity tried to motivate me further (as well as anyone in his vicinity), but I have always had a feeling that life was a bit more than selling metres and metres of carpets, which was how our boss was seeing it. So when there was an opportunity, I had left for greener pastures. So far as I know, Jim still runs his companies, and I wish him luck!

My next venture was with another thriving business, which at the time was relatively new. It belonged to a Dutch fellow, named Hans van der Drift. Inevitably, the business he created was named Hans Smallgoods. Hans, who is about ten years older than I, came into the country sometime in the 1950s; soon he opened up a butcher shop in the City, which had gradually developed into a smallgoods factory. Up until then, if one walked into a delicatessen in Brisbane, all one could buy beside ham or hot dog sausages, was Luncheon or Windsor. All of these would taste much like products of paper-producing industry.

I had started to work at the storeroom, where I learnt about the products the factory was turning up. As soon as there was an opening, I became a driver/salesman on one of ten or so refrigerated vans the company was running. It was the job which was chiefly responsible for both of us becoming firmly established in Australia. I have to explain this more thoroughly, especially for the new generation, which has for quite some time been living and toiling under the yolk of political correctness. And that, just as anything else, has its good and bad sides.

We wanted to buy a house, but by the time we were ready, things in the banking industry had gone pear shaped. Nobody was landing and if, then only with the utmost cautiousness, with the minimum of risk. And we were considered a high risk, being new in the country, unestablished, with only the minimum of deposit. On top of all this, the wages of working woman did not count, as far as financial companies were concerned. Yes, today this would be unthinkable, but not so in the early 1970s! The crux was that I had to earn as much as I could, for at least a period of one year, and working as a salesman at Hans’ had provided the springboard. Hans loved to conduct various competitions amongst his salesmen, and I soon became the winner of such. That meant I had been picking up various awards, but it meant working long hours, easily twelve hours a day, and without any lunch breaks and such. However, my pay-packet had swelled as a result.

As far as I know, Hans was the most successful of this lot. By the late 1980s he had sold the business to the Japanese, and by all indications he did rather well. The company was sold again a couple of years ago, for nearly a billion and a half. I read somewhere that it now has over 3000 employees, and five manufacturing plants in Australia and New Zealand. I’m grateful to Hans for giving me the opportunity to finally earn enough, to convince the bank that we were worth the risk of lending us the money.  Thus we could buy our first house in Australia! We had built it on a half-acre property in Bellbird Park, half-way between Brisbane and Ipswich. We have since moved at least seven times, not counting some other investment ventures. Each time it has been an improvement, at least as I believe.

That Unfortunate Accent!


There weren’t many Czechs who had made it in the in the English entertainment industry. Perhaps the most visible one was Herbert Lom (1917-2012), who had built up an imposing career lasting more than 70 years and comprising over a hundred movies. Originally named Herbert Karel Angelo Kuchacevič ze Schluderpacheru, Lom came from an old aristocratic family of Prague. As a young man he had appeared in a couple of Czech films, but at 22 he decided to move to England in 1939. He had begun to use the name Lom, as it was the shortest he found in the phone directory. Those who make such a move before they reach the age of about 16 stand some chance of learning English without a trace of an accent. Lom was not able to shake off his either, but perhaps for him it was a good thing. From the very beginning he was playing the foreigners, often the suspicious characters, even downright villains. Not all of his roles were of the straight bad guys, though ─ in 1952 Lom played the king of Siam in the original London production of King and I; also the Phantom of the opera, as well as Napoleon or Captain Nemo in film productions. And who could forget his French Police Commissioner Dreyfus, whom the totally useless and nutty Inspector Clouseau played by Peter Sellers sends into the madhouse!

By the time I landed in Australia I had given up any hopes of making a living as an entertainer of any kind in the English speaking countries. Perhaps my only chance would have been the opera, where the situation is reversed and it is the English who have to learn the foreign language, Italian, German, French, even some Czech or Russian. But the emphasis isn’t on correct pronunciation, rather on music, and one could get away with some imperfections. But to make a living as an actor or singer was near impossible; one would always be hindered by one’s accent, which would immediately give one away as not being a born English speaker. This is one constant that someone like myself, once he has made up his mind about living in the English speaking world, must be constantly counting on.


Jára Kohout


Jára KohoutDespite all this, there were some who still had made a living on stage or on the screen, just as did Herbert Lom. One, whom I met personally, was the comic Jára Kohout (1904-1994). In his country in the 1930s, Kohout was a legend. After the 1948 Communist takeover, he left the country, moving first to France, later to America. A born comedian, his was the simple humour that anyone could understand. I had already mentioned how with Mother we used to clandestinely listen to the Radio Free Europe, long before I had reached my teens, and how I had to keep quiet about it in front of everybody, because no one could be trusted. Jára Kohout was one of the voices that came through to us on air, despite the constant jamming that the authorities attempted to do by sending counter-waves into the ether. And his was the voice I liked the best! Perhaps because his humour was so simple, down-to-earth, uncomplicated, it held special appeal to a kid of about ten to twelve. Nevertheless, Jára Kohout, together with other prominent RFE broadcasters, had to, and did, remain Mother’s and my own secret.

In 1978, that secret, together with Mum, who was laughing her head off, were sitting in the back seat of the car that was taking us on a trip to the Gold Coast. Rather surprisingly, Mother was allowed to visit us in Australia. She had to promise the authorities that she will try to talk us into “legalising” our stay in Australia, meaning buying ourselves out. Somehow, she didn’t succeed. At the same time, ra Kohout toured the Czech communities in Australia and he arrived to Brisbane. When I was later introducing him to the microphone in the Czechoslovakian Club, I repeated some of the stock phrases he had been using in his radio programmes. I even sang a couple of songs that were his and his daughter’s, who also appeared on the programme, signature tunes. I did so spontaneously, without any warning to him, and what a terrific surprise it was! Kohout said that he often wandered who, if anyone, was listening to his radio programmes, but that he would never have guessed that amongst the listeners would be a young kid, who would remember what he said and even would be able to repeat it to him many years later. I knew how he felt. At the time I too had begun to make radio broadcasts, and I knew all too well the state of mind I call “The loneliness of the radio moderator”.

Kohout made it in the USA, and was able to feed his family, in his own words, mainly because he was never shy of taking up the commercials. He had acquired a patent on playing the little, pleasantly amusing middle aged foreigner, and as such he appeared in hundreds of commercials over the years. After the fall of the communist regime he returned to his homeland, and even managed to appear in a few films, before his death in 1994.