February 2023

Life Sentences

‘Robert, this morning you have the straightest back in class’

By Robert Manne
In the first of a new series on lines long remembered, the author recalls how a schoolteacher’s praise reverberated beyond the classroom

In one of my early grades at Ivanhoe East Primary School it was the practice of the teacher to choose the pupil with the straightest back. Although we regarded the contest as fairly conducted, it seems more likely that our teacher rewarded all of us eventually. One day my back was adjudged the straightest. I reported this small victory to my mother, neither nonchalantly nor with any great pride. What struck me forcibly, and why it has stuck in my memory, was my mother’s disproportionate delight, which I deconstructed in the following way. In Europe, as I already was aware, the Jews had been looked down upon, frequently because of their supposed unattractive appearance or even physical deformity. One of the things that would never have been acknowledged in anti-Semitic Europe, according to my mother’s view of things, was that a Jewish child, among gentiles, could ever win a contest for the straightest back in class.

I think I already knew that Australia was not like Europe. In my early years I had not experienced even one instance of anti-Semitic behaviour. I realised, however, that my mother was not so sure. Her excessive delight at the fact that her son had been chosen as the child with the straightest back was therefore for me both evidence of the kind of anti-Semitism my mother had come to expect growing up in Germany and of the kind of anti-Semitism she was worried I might experience but that I already was confident I would not.

Although I had no experience of anti-Semitism, I also knew that I did not truly belong in the overwhelmingly Anglo-Scottish-Irish society of Australia in the early 1950s, the days before mass European migration had changed Australia’s ethnic balance forever. On one occasion I was at the birthday party of a schoolfriend. The birthday boy’s mother called out to us to come inside to get away from “the mozzies”. I realised that I was the only one there who had no idea what a mozzie was. On another occasion I was staying with my best friend, John S. I took a bath and went under the water. My very curly black hair was temporarily straight. John was amazed. Without even a hint of malice or condescension, he said words to the effect: “You look like us!”

As far as possible, I tried to keep a distance between the world of my family and the world of my friends. An excruciating case concerned the same friend, John S. I was allowed to invite him to attend the circus with me and my family. Recently, and perhaps even for the occasion, my mother had purchased for me a smart gabardine coat. European boys might wear gabardine coats; Australian boys did not. I was a stubborn child and absolutely refused to wear it. My father warned that if I persisted I would not be going to the circus. His words were not empty. To my horror, even though I was not allowed to go, they took John along. I was mortified – not that I was missing the circus, but that John would be with my family without me to act as a cultural barrier and, if necessary, a cultural translator, explaining the ways of European Jews to John and the ways of Presbyterian Australian boys to my parents. The circus fiasco passed without incident.

It was as a curious outsider that I observed with some puzzlement one of the deepest and most significant divides in Australian society: the hostility between Protestants and Catholics, which the scholars call sectarianism. One day after classes were over, as I was walking home, insults were thrown and a fight almost broke out between my Protestant schoolmates and a group of boys from the local Catholic primary school. I was astonished. Only then did I learn that the overwhelming number of my friends were not just Christians but Protestants. I was informed by my Protestant schoolfriends, in a garbled reference to the sacrament of communion, that Catholics ate human flesh and drank human blood. Even at the time I thought this to be unlikely. The 1950s was the last decade when sectarian hostility of this kind existed in Australia. I am glad I witnessed this incident. It helped me understand a strand of Australian political culture, that was analysed with his usual originality by my later friend, the historian John Hirst.

Robert Manne

Robert Manne is emeritus professor of politics and vice-chancellor’s fellow at La Trobe University. His most recent books are The Mind of the Islamic State and On Borrowed Time.

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