My Sixth Birthday Party
Psychologists often say that episodes in a person’s childhood cause or motivate certain actions or decisions in adulthood. It certainly rings true to me. I’d asked Dale James from this program to introduce me at the launch of “Turn on a Light” last year, which she kindly consented to do. As a good radio personality , she suddenly switched from dialogue about me to ask a pointed question. “Dave, what was your inspiration to write?” I drew on an episode in my childhood to explain, which, as a story, was not only my inspiration to write; it was the inspiration for the work I do.
My sixth birthday was about to happen in Tammin, a wheatbelt town on the Great Eastern Highway to Kalgoorlie.
My dad was the headmaster of the primary school and mum did a lot of relief teaching to help out. My sister, Helen, four years older than me, and I both liked the town and living in the country.
It was the 1950s, and the place reflected the general social divisions of rural Western Australia in that era: wealthy farmers at the top level, then professionals and business people in town , to migrants from Europe working as railway gangers or their wives cleaning or washing , and finally, the Aboriginal Noongar people. And when I was turning six, Aboriginal people were legally compelled to leave town at 6.00 pm each evening and not return until sun-up, so they basically had to live outside the town limits. Nor, by the way, could they attend schools run in towns if non-Aboriginal people objected.
As a child of nearly six, I wasn’t really aware of the existing social structure or the impact of those laws. All I knew was that half the Aboriginal families in town lived about two miles out to the south in brush and cardboard humpies in a gravel pit off the Quairading road while the other half were in a couple of tin sheds on a farmer’s block of land at the eastern end of our street.
But it didn’t affect any of us as kids. We worked together in classrooms and, apart from a gender division, played together in the school yard. So as my birthday approached, I asked dad and mum if I could have a birthday party. They agreed and I was asked who I wanted to invite. I chose the boys from my Infants class : nine non-Aboriginal and three Aboriginal boys and mum sent invitations to them all. On the Saturday of the party, the nine non-Aboriginal boys all arrived, but none of the Aboriginal boys.
After everyone had gone, I asked my mum, “What happened to Moopy and Clarrie and Eugene. Mum? Why didn’t they come?”
She stopped washing dishes, looked at Dad, and then the two of them beckoned me to sit with them.
After a pause, Mum told me, “Well, one reason is because they probably didn’t remember it was your birthday party because they don’t have clocks or calenders, and anyway, they all live a long way from town.
My now six year old brain solved that issue by telling me that mum and dad could have reminded them and gone to get them. After all, my party was hugely important.
Mum went on, “And another reason is because I don’ think they could afford presents, so they didn’t let the kids to come and be shamed.”
Again, my brain solved that problem. Mum and dad could have bought them each a present to give to me: a great solution.
And then, after a brief pause, Mum added, “And maybe they wouldn’t have been comfortable in our house.”
This time my brain had no answer. Even now, it grapples with the phrase. But I know today that my inspiration to write novels and my life’s work can be traced back to seeking solutions to the discomfort of people having to be in my “house”. How can people who are different from each other find ways to be comfortable together without having to visit, or live in, each other’s houses? How can we meet, connect, enjoy each other’s company, work together and even solve problems together, and then be able to go to our own houses, families and ways of knowing and doing at the end of the day?
My current solution, as is explained in the novel Hiding Place, is to have a “between world”, a place between our houses, where we can meet as equals, connect equitably, and not seek to control or to have power over others.