Inside Story

Boomer time

Inside Story editor Peter Browne introduces a memoir of Australia’s fifties by contributor Robert Milliken, who died last Sunday

Robert Milliken 24 May 2023 2754 words

“How could we not be different?”: journalist Robert Milliken. George Fetting

Since our mutual friend Hamish McDonald sent news that Inside Story contributor Robert Milliken had died on Sunday morning I’ve been thinking about how best to write a short piece — an appreciation rather than an obituary — sketching his life and career.

The task is complicated by a paradox. As well as having a great gift for friendship Robert was in many ways a very private person. So I’ll leave it mainly to the extract below — from a short family history he was working on — to give a sense of the forces that created a gifted reporter who published thousands of carefully crafted pieces over a more than fifty-year career.

Robert spent his childhood in Wingham, a NSW town on the Manning River, where his parents ran a residential hotel. Those years left him with warm memories of the character and pace of postwar country life, tempered by a growing sense that change was inevitable. More importantly, life at the Wingham Hotel — a microcosm of rural Australia — fuelled in him an intense curiosity. Journalism seems always to have been the logical end point of those early influences.

After studying politics at the University of New South Wales he took up a cadetship with the Sydney Morning Herald, where his reporting skills were soon apparent. He became known to readers outside Sydney after he moved to another Fairfax paper, the National Times, to write and edit features.

He was also contributing Australian news to the Guardian in London, and it was probably those pieces that attracted the attention of the Independent, the exciting new paper launched by a trio of journalists in London in 1986. One of his first assignments as the paper’s Australian correspondent was the legally delicate job of covering the Spycatcher trial. Reporting on this attempt by the British government to suppress the Australian publication of a controversial MI5 memoir was complicated by a ruling by the Law Lords back in London, who had declared any mention of the book’s contents off limits for the British media.

After more than a decade with the Independent Robert was appointed Australian correspondent for the Economist, to which he continued contributing — regularly then occasionally — until quite recently. Throughout those years he also contributed to Australian magazines including Australian Society, Anne Summers Reports, the Good Weekend and, from 2009, Inside Story. For a time he wrote editorials for the Sydney Morning Herald.

Somehow during these years he found time to write a history of British nuclear testing in Australia, a book about rural Australia’s social and economic upheaval and a biography (extracted here) of the pioneering rock journalist Lillian Roxon.

Among his articles for Australian Society were two on the royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody. That interest in Indigenous affairs carried over into two outstanding pieces for Inside Story based on visits to Bourke and Moree to see innovative justice projects in action. Among his other features for Inside Story was a profile of the maverick western Sydney Liberal Craig Laundy, an account of the migration-led revival of Dubbo, and a report on the unveiling of a new statue, also in Dubbo, of Aboriginal rights leader William Ferguson.

He was a fierce critic of Australia’s treatment of refugees and an equally fierce advocate of an Australian republic. He wrote meticulously but responded amiably to editorial meddling. His circle of friends and acquaintances was wide, and he was invariably a welcoming presence during my visits to Sydney. I am among the many who will miss him enormously.

Here, then, is a short extract from Robert’s last writing project…

On Friday 20 September 1946 the Wingham Chronicle carried a small item near the top of its “Personal” column: “Mr and Mrs Dave Milliken, of the Wingham Hotel, are being congratulated on the birth last weekend of a son and heir.”

The son and heir was me. My sister and only sibling, Sue, had been born six and a half years earlier, but no one ever called her a daughter and heiress. My birth came in the first year of the baby boomers, the post–second world war generation whose arrival presaged big social change. But old attitudes on women’s role in society, and much else, still died hard.

Heir to what? My grandfathers, Harry Cross and James Milliken, had separately built enterprises of the kind around which life on the mid-north coast of New South Wales, and in many other rural regions, revolved: a country hotel and a dairy farm. The worlds these tow institutions encompassed had barely changed in at least fifty years. But they were about to do so, not least for their baby-boom grandchildren.

It was probably 1950 when the first of us boomers became aware of the world around us. Shorn of the privations of economic depression and war, we were defined by youth and renewal: the opening up of education, the postwar rebuilding, the arrival of different sorts of people from the mono-Anglo immigrants of our parents’ generation, and a new popular culture captured largely by the biggest glamour figures of all time, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley. All this spelled confidence. How could we not be different?

I’ve long wanted to write about my childhood in an Australia that has largely passed, where people in New South Wales, at least, lived according to simpler patterns and precepts. Political trends and social mores seemed set in stone; few, if any, questioned them. There were no movements to advance the interests of women, immigrants, First Australians, gay people and others outside society’s masculine conformity because they barely seemed to exist.

Inevitably, my two grandfathers — whose businesses defined much about the rural Australia I entered — provided the stepping-off points. The first baby boomers were born during a crucial transition, from the tail end of the era of European expansion to the opening up of new cultural frontiers.

The Wingham Hotel, also known as Cross’s Hotel, stood confidently and invitingly at the entrance to Wingham, a town of perhaps 3000 people on the Manning River, about 320 kilometres north of Sydney. The Milliken farm, “Magheramorne,” faced the Wallamba River at Darawank, a hamlet near the Pacific Ocean about thirty-six kilometres southeast of Wingham.

Before the days of motels and licensed clubs, country hotels like ours played key roles in country life. They were the places where people stayed, ate, met, did business and, at the Wingham Hotel at least, lived. The residents weren’t people just looking for somewhere cheap to doss. They were what today would be called young professionals, for whom the hotel offered comfort and security.

In my first few years, residents included a pharmacist, a doctor, an ex–prisoner of war from Changi, and the venerable Miss Paterson, who became Wingham’s first female health inspector in 1949. They were the “permanents” who, in some ways, became part of the family.

Yet social mores kept familiarity at a distance. We called them Mr, Mrs or Miss, never by their first names (the honorific Ms hadn’t been coined). When I met her again fifty years later in her retirement in a mid-north coast beach town, Miss Paterson gave a sense of how these rigidities were starting to break down when she landed in Wingham after the war.

“There was a first-name basis largely, and I didn’t think that was right,” she told me. “You weren’t going to have a disciplined staff if they were going to call you Bill and Joe and whatever. So I was trying to educate them, but I don’t think I had any success at all. In the office itself, the girls all called one another by their first names, but maybe I just looked difficult. The town clerk always called me Miss Paterson. Some of the labourers would come in and say, “Is Jim in?” meaning the town clerk. I’d give them a lecture, and say Mr-whoever-was-the-town-clerk was in.”

Social life was more relaxed, with people expressing their feelings in sayings that have largely fallen out of use. Instead of swearing, publicly at least, they said “Strike a light,” “Spare me days,” “God strewth” or just “Strewth” to convey shock or exasperation, and “God give me strength” for outright disapproval.

I didn’t inherit either the hotel or the dairy farm, but each of them has remained embedded in my imagination. That’s because the hotel in particular, but even the farm, were such vibrant places where people, not machines, computers and algorithms, were the drivers of daily life.

By the time I was born, both grandfathers were dead. My parents, Thelma (known as Thel), Harry Cross’s elder daughter, and David (known as Dave), James Milliken’s youngest son, had married in 1939 and, the following year, taken over the Wingham Hotel in partnership with Thel’s younger sister, Jennie. We lived as a family in a sprawling flat upstairs, and while Thel, Dave and Jennie were running the business downstairs Sue and I were endlessly fascinated by the colourful cast of characters — staff, patrons, diners, drinkers, travelling salesmen and visitors of all kinds — who thronged the hotel’s kitchen, dining room, bars and lounges.

In some ways, it was like living in a frontier town of the kind depicted in the Westerns that featured in Wingham’s two cinemas (then known as picture theatres) in the 1940s and 50s. One artist’s depiction of the approach to Wingham — looking across the Cedar Party Creek bridge and up the rise of Wynter Street to the Wingham Hotel — evokes the town entrance of my childhood, unchanged as it must have been for decades. I imagine coaches bringing people along the dirt road and bullock trains taking freshly sawn native cedar and eucalyptus logs from forests in the hills around Wingham, down Isabella Street to the wharf, where they were shipped to Sydney and the wider world.

Wingham’s own world was a self-sufficient one. There were no supermarkets, no clothing or hardware chain stores owned by distant conglomerates. Local families — the Moxeys, the Gleesons, the Maitlands, the Mellicks and others — owned and ran the local businesses that provided food, groceries, clothes, farm equipment and almost every provision townsfolk needed.

This self-sufficiency helped to give Wingham and its district’s tight-knit population a strong sense of identity. So did the local economy, which revolved around dairy and beef farming and timber. It belonged to a world in which most of Australia’s exports came from the bush. That, too, was about to change, as hardships from the past faded away and the new golden age, born with the baby boomers, began.

Thel, Dave, Jennie and their generation had lived through two of the worst events of the twentieth century: the Depression of the 1930s and the second world war. The war had come to the Wingham Hotel in various ways. Family friends went, or were sent, to live there, seeking sanctuary from isolation and attack. And Dave fought battles of a different sort with government authorities over the rationing of beer.

Although the war had ended just a year before I was born, through my childhood eyes it was as if it had never happened. A new world of abundance and prosperity was unfolding.

A fortnight after I was born Ben Chifley won the 1946 election for the Labor Party, claiming Australia was “about to enter upon the greatest era in her history.” The start of the baby boom fuelled demand for housing and consumer goods, and a big rise in immigration helped to underpin postwar economic expansion. As the historian Stuart Macintyre observed, “The third quarter of the twentieth century was an era of growth unmatched since the second half of the nineteenth century.”

Along with growth and prosperity, three events in 1949, three years after I was born, roughly defined the world I was entering. Mao Zedong led the Chinese Communist Party to power, founding the People’s Republic of China. The Soviet Union successfully tested its first atomic weapon, ending America’s monopoly as a nuclear power. Those two events consolidated the cold war: a strategic rivalry between the West and the Soviet Union and its allies, including the fear of nuclear war, that was a fundamental feature of the 1950s.

The third significant event of 1949 that helped fix Australia’s political world happened closer to home. Bob Menzies, founder of the Liberal Party, won the 1949 federal election, and remained Australia’s prime minister for a record seventeen years. Menzies was a consummate politician for whom the economic boom at home and the cold war’s uncertainties abroad facilitated a hold on power. The government’s anti-communist rhetoric pervaded the 1950s, with Menzies warning of Australia falling victim to a “thrust by Communist China between the Indian and Pacific Oceans.”

There was little sense of a new form of postwar Australian nationalism emerging. Another twenty years had to pass for that to happen. Menzies, the ultimate Anglophile and monarchist, folded Australia’s identity into its British colonial heritage just as that world was growing rapidly out of date. In a speech to the US House of Representatives in 1950, he declared: “The world needs the United States of America. The world needs the British peoples of the world.” He made no mention of his own land as a separate sovereign entity.

As a child at Wingham public school, opposite our family’s hotel, I attended Empire Day, a curious annual celebration of the British Empire, with bonfires and fireworks, that ceased only in 1958. The Biripi Aboriginal community, who’d lived in the Manning Valley for tens of thousands of years before the Crosses, Millikens and other settlers arrived, were not included. The empire had robbed them of their lands and much of their cultural heritage. They were not seen, and nor did the school mention their names or story. As a child, I didn’t know they existed; to my knowledge, I never saw an Aboriginal person in Wingham.

In the first years of the baby boomers, Aboriginal Australians were kept in their colonial-era places, the missions and settlements, usually in squalor. Purfleet, near the Manning town of Taree, and a settlement in Forster, at the mouth of the Wallamba River, offered my first childhood glimpses of Aboriginal people, but only as we drove past, and with no discussion of who they were or how they got there. Righting injustices was not part of Australia’s immediate postwar agenda.

Too much else was happening to redefine postwar Australia as a land of wealth, confidence and leisure. The first Sydney–Hobart yacht race was held in 1945. Australia started making cars in 1948. Construction of the most ambitious public enterprise — the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme — started in 1949. Many of the workers who built that project, who comprised the first wave of immigrants drawn from European countries other than Britain, were trailblazers of the multicultural profile that eventually changed the country’s human face.

The changes didn’t stop at home. Overseas, Australia was joining the American Century. To replace our old dependence on Britain, we looked across the Pacific to form security alliances with our new “great and powerful friend,” as Menzies called the United States, which had led us to victory in the Pacific war. America’s cultural influence reached a zenith during the 1950s, when the first wave of baby boomers came into childhood. The surge of popular culture from America included the birth of rock-and-roll, resonating among a new generation in an Australia that had given barely any encouragement to local voices in film, drama or music.

All this gave a young baby boomer the sense of an exciting and prosperous, yet secure world. Menzies’s reassuring tones on the radio and in newsreels (television didn’t come to Australia until 1956) helped see to that. The rhythm of life in the sheltered worlds of the Wingham Hotel and the Magheramorne farm, and elsewhere, hardly varied from one year to the next.

And yet it was about to change. In the mid 1950s, Thel and Dave sold the Wingham Hotel, bringing to an end a family ownership of three generations. We moved to Glory Vale, a beautiful farm near Gloucester, also on the Manning River. I rode a horse every day to a one-room bush school. In this unlikely place, we had a brush with Hollywood glamour when the star Anne Baxter settled incongruously for a time further along the Manning. A way of life for rural Australians would soon pass forever. •