Triple Threat Day – Backstory

February 10, 2009 at 12:42 am (Tom) (, , )

And lastly, this one here, posted last, is the actual, bona fide blog entry, at last.

And it’s about my family; who get a lot of airtime, but only snatches of backstory.

I should point out that I generally think of myself as having a couple of families – the one I grew up with; and the people I’ve become attached to as an adult. Obviously, Julia sits at the middle of the second group; which also includes the members of her extended family, and the urban tribe (not this urban tribe) we orbit around. The former includes Mum, Dad, a sister, a brother, and Nana and Da on my Mum’s side. At a greater distance, geographically, at least, are my Mum’s sister and her husband, their son (my cousin), his wife and children; and my Dad’s brother in Melbourne. While I have my Dad’s my last name, it’s probably fair to say that my Mum’s family has been a whole lot more influential on my life to date. This post is mostly about them.

As you may well have noticed, I don’t find my own family particularly onerous. In general, even high drama elicits a response from me somewhere between amused and nonplussed; which I’m sure must be quite infuriating for the various family members who enjoy a spot of the dramatic. As a result, I rarely feel the need to fill in my friends on their antics. However, for Julia – who, let’s be honest, only really signed on for Tom, not the whole crew – they can occasionally be a frustrating mess of conflicting personalities, flouncing, affected outrage and bizzare vendettas. I should note at this point that Julia seems to get on with the vast majority of my family members very well individually – even the prickliest – it’s the interactions en masse that really get to her.

History

My mum grew up in 1950’s Sydney, as the oldest girl of her generation in a family of Eastern Suburbs Irish Australian matriarchs, the Webbs. Since the 20’s, this branch of the family had operated a successful grocery business that flourished through the Depression, the War, and the rationing that continued into the early 50’s. It would be difficult to believe the success of this business wasn’t connected to the rise and rise of the black market in essentials throughout the period that only ended in the early 60’s – incidentally when the family business went belly-up. Combining this with the occasionally colourful stories about business associates like Big Charlie, and Uncle Frankie the SP bookie, I think it’s probably fair to say that we were heavily involved in the Irish organised crime scene of the period. If any of you remember Julia’s 1930’s-themed WoD game, my family was the inspiration.

My great-grandmother ran this sometime empire with an iron glove, apparently. She was the head accountant, business manager, and undisputed alpha of the clan. Her husband was a mild alcoholic and a serious gambler; but was kept on a tight leash, while her brood of 6 sons was deployed with military efficiency to keep the shops and fruitbarrows turning a profit. My Da was somewhere in the middle of this group, and lived at home until he was called away to war at 18.

At about this time, my Nana, an ambitious young thing from a sprawling rural family of dairy farmers outside Bega (and liberally sprinkled across the South Coast), made her way to the big city, to find herself a life. I’ve never got the full story from her – was it wanderlust, curiousity, independence, or something more interesting; but she ended up working in a milk bar in Bondi Junction; one of the grubbier slums of the down-at-heel, eastern suburbs – and chock full of Catholics. A few hundred meters from the stinking, clanking tramsheds that gave the Junction its name, and the thriving vice market that gave it it’s spark, she met my Da over a 3p malted milk. According to him, he decided then and there that this was the girl he would marry – but Doreen, tough as nails, wasn’t immediately convinced.Β  It took countless letters, and his return from Papua New Guinea in 1946 to seal the deal. Once bound in holy matrimony, Doreen was a Webb – a point her new mother-in-law appears to have made chillingly clear.

Nana was moved into the family business in short order – as my Great-Grandmother’s lieutenant, along with another daughter-in-law; whose name I forget, and who died some time before my birth, I think. The sons were never trusted in the inner circle – they were to be taken care of, and they were hard workers, but they couldn’t be given the kind of responsibility that women were capable of. A couple of the sons died in the war, and another one never quite recovered; and the women essentially kept the family operating. A few years later, my mum was born, cementing the dynasty; and was involved in “the shop” from a young age.

Throughout the 50’s, the family’s contacts kept the groceries running. Late in that decade, though, I think my great-grandmother died. I have an inkling it was some kind of lung cancer, but I’m not entire sure. In any case, control of the business went not to my grandmother but to her husband, who she’d clearly never expected to outlive her. He and one of the surviving sons rapidly drank and gambled their way through the proceeds of the shops, then through the future proceeds of the shops, and finally through the shops themselves. By the mid 60’s, the empire was gone; and my Da, freed from its clutches, was working as a horse trainer at Randwick Park racecourse; one of Sydney’s most prominent trots venues. He had previously trained as a jockey, before a growth spurt put paid to that dream, and had taken care of the horses for the business prior to their replacement with Ford trucks in the early 50’s. The Randwick racecourse was also one of the glamourous centres of Sydney’s high-profile underworld – for anyone intending to tune in to the new series of Underbelly, I have a feeling my Da would recognise more than a few of the players.

My grandmother, however, had picked up where the Great-grandmother left off; organising and stabilising the still extensive clan around festivals of religious observance – famously over-booked Easter lunches, Christmas dinners and St. Pats Day feasts – all now without alcohol, as though to perform penance to the alcoholism that had destroyed the family business. These were jovial, but dutiful affairs – think Tony Soprano’s business dinners, and you mightn’t be far wrong. Though the Webb clan wasn’t what it once had been, the associates all showed up to pay their respects, and keep in contact. I have no idea if most of the group were still essentially criminal, but it wouldn’t surprise me. I think my Da, at least, had gone straight.

My mum was smart – but the resources of the family as she left school couldn’t stretch to a university education; and I’m not entirely sure if they had even considered this as an option in the first place. Instead, she went travelling around with Da’s youngest surviving brother, Morris. Morry is now Da’s only surviving brother, incidentally. At the time, Morry was a flamboyant women’s hairdresser whose hobbies included bodysurfing, bodybuilding, and coconut oil sunbaking. Morry, one of the few brothers with business acumen, had managed to squirrel away enough money from the failing business to establish himself as a hairdresser, invest in property, and take the occasional trip to Europe. The fact that he would never marry meant that he was able to reinvest the lion’s share of his money in further property and his expensive lifestyle.

Travelling around Europe was great for Mum; I think – perhaps she’d never really had that kind of independence before, and her uncle was a poor chaperone at best. I suspect he was content to keep her secrets, as long as she kept his; which at the time was still a jailable offence. That said, I have difficulty seeing my Mum as anything but cautious; and I can’t imagine too many glossy-eyed midnight psychadelic adventures above the blue Danube, or dangerous liasons in the secluded hills of Tuscany. But staying out too late, drinking too much, and the occasional summer romance, that I’d credit. Her mother, my Nana, seems to have been a fearsome presence in her life at this point; inevitably backed by traditional, taciturn Da.

Upon her return to Australia in about 1970, for her sister’s wedding (I think, if I have the timelines right), Mum landed back on a different planet – uptight, provincial Australia, and the Bondi Junction orbit, dominated by the Webb clan. But the world was about to break open for her – It was soon Time, and Gough Whitlam busted open the universities. In 1972, my Mum was one of the first of her generation to attend Sydney University for free, working her way through a Bachelor of Arts (Anthrop), and following it up with a Masters of Librarianship.

In Melbourne, my Dad had taken a different path. Consciously breaking with his family, he had pursued and won a Commonwealth scholarship in the late 60’s, gaining admission to Melbourne uni for a Bachelor of Psychology course; and bolting for Sydney the minute he had his meal-ticket. In Sydney, he landed a job as a psych registrar (possibly nurse? I’m not too sure) at a major inner-city institution affiliated with RPA, and pursued his interest in photography. The art community based in Glebe and Surry Hills welcomed him as one of their own, and he found himself pulled into the orbit of Sydney University’s thriving student culture. After a series of legendarily doomed relationships, he was introduced to my Mum by her friend Sharon, and, like her mother, Joy was apparently less than impressed at first. The scruffy young southerner with a beard and beret wasn’t her normal target – apparently young naval officers had taken her fancy. This I now find quite difficult to believe; but there you go.

Anyway; this is getting somewhat long, and I’m already 40 minutes overdue. Next week – Why my Family is like it is: Part the second.

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11 Comments

  1. juliadactyl said,

    I know why your Nan left! She told me, it was because she was so fucking bored in the country it wasn’t even funny.

    According to your mum, when your mum was small and they’d go and stay with your nan’s family, after about 4 days your nan used to freak out because she was scared she’d be trapped there.

    Also, for a while before she met your da, she was working in a clothing factory during the war but got jack of that and essentially sweet-talked your great-grandfather into employing her at the milk bar.

  2. juliadactyl said,

    Also: I really love the history of your family, because in some ways they are the quintessential Irish-Australian experience. Depression! War! Organised crime! True love! June 1946 wedding!

    It is almost textbook.

  3. chromefist said,

    Neat. My grandparents seem to like talking to you. I think that whole reassertion of matriarchy thing much be quite comforting. πŸ™‚

  4. juliadactyl said,

    Also because all people from that generation absolutely adore me.

  5. naboolio said,

    You have a pretty cool family history Tom! Can’t wait to hear more.

  6. Heather said,

    This is awesome! I can’t wait to read more.

  7. Danoot said,

    man, everyone around me gets organised crime histories, I get Salvos.

    ripped off.

  8. chromefist said,

    Well, being descended from the revolutionary army of God sounds good on paper…

  9. naboolio said,

    This article made me think of your post:

    http://www.smh.com.au/national/razor-gangs-and-axewielding-angels-squalid-sydney-on-show-20090305-8q1v.html

    I’d love to go see this exhibition with any of you AP5s who are interested! Let me know πŸ™‚

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