In 1975 my family emigrated from England to Australia. I escaped from cold, dank, inner-city London— where my brothers and I played endless, sweaty, claustrophobic games of soccer in our rented Putney apartment— to the blindingly bright sunshine of suburban Perth.
I don’t remember being officially told at any point that this was going to happen. Sure, passports were being procured and suitcases packed but I was ten. All I ever thought about was one day getting a pair of white Adidas trainers and, with their magic, being able to dribble a soccer ball like my friend, Dean Crossroads, who I was pretty sure was the best dribbler who’d ever lived. But one morning it was officially announced, we were going off to be Australians and live in a city called Perth, which when I looked at a map of Australia, was on the left-hand side.
It’s funny to think now that during the ten years preceding our move most of the happening young Aussies, like Clive James and Germaine Greer, had been headed in precisely the opposite direction. They were gravitating to one of the cultural and intellectual epicentres of the world to see whether they could be taken seriously by the happening people of London. People who, it turned out, weren’t more happening, but had merely been happening for longer, were more at home with it and tended to happen on a larger scale. Being ten at the time, and not thinking about anything but soccer, I wasn’t one of London’s happening people. So, my presence wasn’t going to be required to validate theirs, which left me free to go.
In the short term, this life-defining event would see me no longer having school dinners in a dining room featuring a plate, knife and fork and gravy, but instead eating a ham and salad roll, while seated on a tree stump and consuming a thing called a Choc Milk. It had all come about because my dad had seen an ad: Violin player required for the West Australian Symphony Orchestra. The clincher for my dad was that the Australian Broadcasting Company would pay the airfares for the whole family of whoever got the job. My dad wasn’t the violin player in the family, he was the deal spotter, so off my mum went to audition.
The people from the A.B.C. doing the auditioning thought my mum was a class act. She’d played with a couple of first rate outfits like the Boston Pops and The New York Philharmonic and had gone to Brandeis University, where Leonard Bernstein had hung around for a while, looking mysterious. She was a polished professional and demonstrated it at the audition by sight reading her way through some brutal Shostakovich concerto they’d only given her the day before. Just the norm for her, but for a young David Measham, looking to make his mark as a conductor on the Australian classical music scene, she would’ve seemed like another piece of the puzzle he needed to put himself, and Perth, on the Aussie musical map. He could recognise the real thing when he heard it, and she was it, so we were hired!
The day before we left, I was told to go around to all my friend’s houses and say goodbye. My neighbourhood and school were a melting pot of every culture that had somehow found its way to London. I made the mistake of going around to bid my friends farewell at dinner time. First, I was offered a Caribbean meal by a West Indian friend, then a Pakistani meal and then middle Eastern fare. I went home that night stuffed to the gills, and already missing my friends. This was not unusual, as all the neighbourhood kids just ate at whatever friend’s house they happened to be playing at around dinner time. When you went home, the leftovers were frequently packed up and sent with you. The many and varied nationalities in our neighbourhood were keen to impress each other with their indigenous fare. There wasn’t a lot of money amongst the immigrant population of Putney in those days, but we all ate well. My parents were transplants too. They’d initially left the U.S. to honeymoon in Europe. When the Vietnam War draft threatened to spirit my father away from the two things he loved, his family and the theatre, they just never went back.
I don’t know whether my parents thought emigrating to Australia was a big deal. My sister, one year my senior, certinly thought it was. In her mind, she was definitely one of London’s happening people and felt the city would be lost without her as much as she would be without it. My brothers, twins three years my junior, seemed, to my ten year old sensibilities, like more or less non-sentient beings. One was slightly fairer, rounder and larger than his darker, feebler counterpart but both appeared content to go along with anything that was happening. Perhaps my parents thought they could nobly spread cultural enlightenment amidst this new frontier land, and that this justifed moving us to the most isolated major city on earth. Truth is, I had no idea what they thought and no way of communicating with them because they weren't interested in soccer.
It’s funny how events occur and persist in your collective family consciousness as a positive memory for years, only to be tainted later in life when new information comes to light. One day, just before we left London, we were walking down Carnaby Street and ran into Rolf Harris. We’d all seen him on the British kids' program, Blue Peter, where he’d get out a can of paint and a house painter's brush, whip up a cartoon masterpiece in two minutes and then sing Jake the Peg. My parents told him we were emigrating to Perth, his home town as it turned out. He said he was going to be back there to perform soon and we could all come as his guests to watch his show at the brand new Perth Entertainment Centre. In that brief interaction on the street, he was exactly the affable, easygoing, down-to-earth person we’d seen on TV. I don’t remember much about going to his show, other than that we sat in some sort of VIP area right at the front. I don’t even remember going back stage to meet him afterwards, which we did, but I’m pretty sure that my parents wouldn’t have thought twice about leaving us, my sister included, in the company of the much loved children’s TV host.
But I’m jumping ahead because, before we could get to Perth, we had to get out of Heathrow Airport and that meant boarding a Qantas flight, the crew of which had in no way been prepared for flying with the Letourneau brood. Having had a fairly un-posh upbringing, this was the first time we children had experienced service of a high level from adults who it seemed would bring us more or less whatever we wanted. Thus ensued endless requests for: biscuits, sweets, colouring books, headphones, blankets, pillows and our absolute favourite– skinny half-sized bottles of coke, of which we drank the plane dry during the course of the twenty-nine-hour crossing. Our parents didn’t care; there was no bill forthcoming and they had effectively scored free babysitting from the air hostesses. At one point, an unfailingly polite hostie informed me, through gritted teeth, that I might just try sitting quietly and looking out the window for a bit. But it was way too late for that. All four of us kids, who were accustomed to imbibing solely water and milk, were now on the biggest sugar high of our lives.
“Sure, I’ll just sit quietly!” I said, my face frozen in a maniacal smile, eyes wide as dinner plates, legs kicking with a life of their own as the sucrose gushed through my veins like the Ganges bursting its banks in the rainy season. The four of us then proceeded to tear up and down the plane playing chase until the head hostie informed us that she had found four kid-sized parachutes and would shortly be fitting us into them, pushing us out the door and pulling the rip cords, if we didn’t settle down. After total exhaustion finally set in (for the cabin crew, not us) we did quieten down a bit and contemplate what lay ahead as we started our descent.
It was at this point that my sister looked out the window and sounded the alarm. She gripped my arm like a vice and confided to me in hushed tones that, as far as she could ascertain, there were no roads, buildings, cars or anything that resembled civilisation in this God forsaken, barren land and that, upon landing, after looking after our parents, who she predicted would be useless and in shock, the two of us would have to somehow find water, build a shelter and forage for food for the family. Our best chance of survival, she informed me, would be to befriend some native aboriginal people and learn their language and bushcraft.
“I’ll probably have to marry the chief and bear his children” she intoned in a weighty voice, a far off, noble look in her eye. I gasped; I had been prepared for some degree of change but not of this magnitude. I wondered how much of this would turn out to be as she said. But, at eleven and a half, she had a level of experience not to be questioned. I nodded solemnly and prepared for the worst. It turned out that we had been approaching Perth over uncleared bushland and as we got closer to the airport, she blithely brushed off her previous misconceptions. “Might’ve been wrong junior, I see some houses.” I casually put away the colouring pencil I'd been manically sharpening into a spearhead in preparation for my new life, looked out the window, took a deep breath and felt my ears popping.
Our first few weeks in Oz were a blur. All I remember was how much paler I was than everyone else and that, after the first day at school, I ditched my leather English school shoes and kneesocks and went to school barefoot like the other kids. I also recall clearly comprehending that if I was ever going to make friends, I'd have to learn how to kick an Ozzie rules footy. The kid who was better at this than anyone else was Trevor, the only Aboriginal kid at the school. I watched his effortless skill and power as he sent what the kids called ‘torpedoes’, spiralling into the distance. On the football ground, Trevor was numero uno and I presumed it would be the same in the classroom. When, in the first week the teacher told us to pair up with someone we wanted to do our class project with, I tentatively shuffled over to Trevor hoping he would accept me. As I reached his side, a white boy yanked me away and shook his head angrily. When everyone had paired up Trevor still stood alone, looking down at the ground.
Sam Letourneau lives in Melbourne, Australia with his eleven-year-old son Liam. He owns and runs Australia’s largest indoor golf facility, where he also teaches. In his spare time he writes and has just completed a draft of his first book, Barred, which details a friend's ten year odyssey roaming the world as a professional blackjack player in the 1990s.