The Land Before Avocado
The safari suit was a fashion must for any well-dressed man in the summer of 1971.Credit:Fairfax Media
Harper Collins, $29.99
The Land before Avocado. By Richard Glover.
I think Richard Glover's latest book should carry a warning: Do not read this book on a plane. Fellow passengers maybe disturbed by your erratic outbursts of laughter, and occasional gasps of horror.
In the early stages of researching The Land Before Avocado, Glover told his son Dan that in the 1990s avocados didn't exist in Australia. "Dad," said Dan, "that's very, very unlikely."
Of course, the avocado did exist, but its chequered history of importation, lack of interest, disease and derision – to its current status as the cornerstone of any self-respecting cafe's breakfast menu, mirrors nicely Glover's story of Australia in the '60s and '70s, and his exploration of whether the rosy tint baby boomers tend to cast over those distant days is warranted.
Glover, a columnist for Spectrum, points out at the start that, depending on the year, the death penalty was still applied, homosexuality was illegal, rape in marriage was allowed, corporal punishment was applied in schools, cars lacked basic safety equipment and seat belts were not compulsory. Smoking, of course, was popular and permitted everywhere, and, Glover reminds us – the Safari suit was considered stylish.
Growing up as a child in the '60s might, in retrospect, seem to be an endless meadow of unrestricted freedom but, as filmmaker Stephan Elliott tells Glover, it was the era before the three S's – "Seatbelts, Sunscreen and Supervision … if you drank enough cask wine it was almost as if you didn't have kids".
Glover, who wrote about his childhood in his poignant memoir, Flesh Wounds, thought he had a fairly bizarre childhood. His mother left her 14-year-old son and her husband to run off with Glover's English teacher, whom she'd met at a parent-teacher night. He re-quotes one of his lines from his memoir: "I was never their favourite. Which is hard when you're an only child."
What emerged from that book, writes Glover, were some truly terrible tales of neglect, enough to make you think that perhaps life these days, despite the occasional shocking headline, is safer for children now.
Glover attempts to balance a see-saw weighted with nostalgia at one end and statistics at the other. His book, as well as being humorous, is what you might call seriously funny. It was no laughing matter, for instance, to be a woman in the Australia of the '60s, particularly if you wanted a divorce. The humiliation involved in obtaining one – if you were lucky enough for it to be granted – seems almost medieval these days. Reading through an archived manuscript of divorce papers, Glover remarks that it was "the saddest book in the world". It wasn't until 1975 that the legislation for no-fault divorce was passed by the soon-to-be-dismissed Whitlam Government.
If I have a small gripe, it's that the book's dialogue is sometimes a little stilted. I think a bit of judicious editing to insert some contractions into the direct quotes would have helped the flow.
Glover puts forward a persuasive argument that life is actually better now, citing (among other things) better sewerage, phone connection, gun control, lower crime rates, less corruption, a longer life expectancy and the fact that Australians can now eat outdoors (even in Canberra); and of course, the undeniable fact that as a nation we have now embraced avocado. In fact, his only definite call on the Nostalgia Swing is for the music of his era, thereby showing his age, and perhaps, I suspect, his innermost secret belief: that life in the past, no matter the truth, deserves its rosy glow.
These days the Australia of the '60s and '70s is a strange and almost unrecognisable land; it does make me wonder what on earth the future will make of us.
A perfect Christmas present, or summer reading. And if you want to play a practical joke on someone, give it to a visiting relative as they're boarding their plane home.
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