Some among us might dismiss the 1950s as a dreary interlude, when a drab white Australia was ruled by a smug Prime Minister and run at half-speed.
Nick Richardson thinks better of that decade, specifically of the hinge year, 1956, when Melbourne hosted the Olympics and Australia - in the words of the old SBS jingle - first experimented with "bringing the world back home". In Richardson's version, 1956 comprised "a year when Australia's gaze was pulled outwards, beyond the Empire and the old world, and towards a different future". Richardson even detects an intrepid group of "energetic modernisers" amid the complacency, casual racism and sanctimonious wowserism of the Menzies era.
Richardson's claim for 1956 is ambitious. Other historians might credibly argue for 1941 (beginning the war against Japan), 1945 (starting stuttering steps towards post-war re-construction) or, moving forward, 1972 (the election of the first Whitlam government). Just as a few historians have pushed back in time the innovation and iconoclasm associated with Whitlam (as far back as the Gorton government), so does Richardson discern glimmers of independence and liberalism tucked even into 1956.
As the chronicler of a year, Richardson (an author, academic and journalist) proves spirited, artful and entertaining. While keeping the Olympics as the pivot and focus for his year, Richardson also assembles an eclectic cast of supporting players to weave in and out of the narrative. They operate a bit like an antipodean magpie variant on a classical Greek chorus. Ray Lawler stages a successful play about cane cutters on holiday ("Summer of the Seventeenth Doll"), Barry Humphries invents a regrettably durable harridan (Edna Everage) and Anthony Mark becomes the first Indigenous Australian to carry the Olympic torch.
In the background, the British are permitted to test nuclear weapons at Maralinga (a controversy treated especially thoroughly here), Menzies disgraces himself by ignominious fumbling during the Suez dispute, and NSW legalises poker machines. Losing an average weekly pay packet of 16 pounds took only 27 minutes.
Richardson also consistently includes diverting detail: the Olympic torch kept in gaol cells in Darwin; a woman sprinter permitted a shandy after a 30-hour fast before racing; Tasmania left off the Australian logo on our athletes' outfits; a rushed search for cooks familiar with Muslims and Hindus.
Richardson's necessarily episodic, sometimes abbreviated approach to issues is lifted by whimsically charming interludes like these.
- 1956, by Nick Richardson. Scribe. $35.