Children pose with ice cream.
Children pose with ice cream. Photo: Getty Images

Jack Waterford

As kids, we were desperately jealous of the local Aboriginal children. We knew that, in principle, we were far better off. Yet when we went to town and the local shops, the absolute most we could scrounge from our parents was sixpence, more often threepence. Perhaps at the annual agricultural show, one might weedle two shillings from my father.

Threepence was around about enough to buy an ice cream in a cone, a small quantity of hot chips wrapped in newspaper, or about 12 lollies, carefully hand chosen from big jars. Sixpence was, in modern childhood value terms worth about $3. Two bob – 20c – would get you at least a ride at the show, plus, probably, entry into the Jimmy Sharman boxing tent.

The poor, particularly the very poor, are different from you and me.  

Many a time, we would see young Aboriginal children with two bob in their hand at the shop while we were deciding how to spend our threepences. Two bob brought a bottle of lemonade, a packet of potato crisps, and, probably a bar of chocolate. All, for us, utter treats hardly ever experienced.

It was perfectly obvious even to six-year-olds that we were generally better off than the young Aboriginal children, but this only underlined the general meanness of our parents. Our parents could the more obviously afford it, we reasoned, when almost any Aboriginal father, returning from a spell of mustering, lamb-marking, rouseabouting or shearing would fling silver at all of his children.

These kids mostly ate with us and, like us, roamed the property from sunup to sundown, but they, clearly, were princelings compared with us.

The dreadful discrimination about spending money for treats in shops had nothing to do with our disapproval of sugar, processed foods or any sort of health kick. We ate very well, largely from food grown at home, but we also bought supplies at the shop – including 50 kilogram bags of sugar, salt, flour and rice, and other staples regarded these days with horror by dieticians. 

We generally bought bread, delivered by the mailman. Meat was a big part of the diet, and a big proportion was cooked with heavy quantities of lard or fat, regarded by the modern dietician as congealed cholesterol. Our Depression-era parents tended to think that bread, or damper soaked in salty dripping was a big treat, and so did we. Likewise with crackling, even if the fastidious, such as myself, didn’t much go for fat on a chop.  Gravies and ‘‘white sauce’’  – heavy in salt and flour – tended to cover the two legs and two shoulders of mutton that our household consumed every week, or, in winter, the quarter of a bullock, killed on rotation among the neighbours, that lasted for about a month. Because our kerosene refrigerator could hold only a tiny fraction of this, most was stored in 44-gallon drums of brine – one of the reasons I remain so addicted to salt.

We had a morning ritual of cakes and homecooked biscuits and tarts, in which sugar was a significant ingredient.  We had lots of heavily sugared puddings and desserts – junkets, sago, tapioca, milk puddings, and occasionally had cravings for abominations such as condensed milk, tinned jams and tinned fruits floating in liquid sugar.

Against this were some healthy things. We had an acre of orchard about the house, and any number of oranges, mandarins, grapefruit and lemons. There were seasons of apples, quinces, plums, pears, peaches and nectarines. We had more than a dozen cooks – sometimes, indeed, cooked if we had vegetarian visitors. We had rows of beans and tomatoes, though they were rarely robust, and, every early spring my father would plough up half an acre, and plant spuds, watermelons, rockmelons, and various (revolting) types of marrow, watered from the well.

Our Aboriginal playmates enjoyed the largesse, but when they were in town among relatives, they were not living anything like as well, with or without the two bobs from their father or their ready access to carbonated drinks and chips. At Quambone, the western NSW town by the Macquarie Marshes near where I lived until I was 10, there was not a single Aboriginal dwelling with a water supply, nor one with a refrigerator.  Most dwellings had two rooms, enclosed by corrugated iron and thus working somewhat like a camp oven; none had a stove, and cooking was generally done with pans or camp ovens, at a campfire out the back.

Some foods, the sort that came in tins or 50 kilogram hessian bags, could be stored, up to a point, but anything likely to spoil in the hot climate had to be consumed inside a day or so. Most of the diet had been bought today, or yesterday. If there was no money, there was no food.

 Most people were not living on the dole or any form of welfare, and there was a reasonable amount of casual work available, if not so well paid that people could save much, improve their capacity to store food, or even, necessarily stretch out the money until the next money would arrive. Those two bobs that many of the Aboriginal kids got were, as often as not, their entire diet for the day. People were shooting the odd kangaroo, catching the odd fish, or perhaps quietly ‘‘disarming’’ the odd aggressive sheep, but such diets tended to lurch from feast to famine.

I might not have understood it in my jealousy of 55 years ago, but it was an important illustration of the obverse of the old F. Scott Fitzgerald phrase about the very rich, who are ‘‘different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand.

‘‘They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves. Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are. They are different.’’

The poor, particularly the very poor, are different from you and me, and the fact that we scarcely understand it is one of the reasons why a good many of our public health campaigns – especially the ones aimed at the poor – are doomed to failure. These campaigns are conceived by well-meaning members of the middle class who have idealised notions of families and circumstances and prudence and education which they assume apply to everyone else, if in slightly reduced doses.

For such nice people, having fast food as a high proportion of one’s diet does not make sense. First, it is, in relative terms, expensive. Second, it tastes awful – perhaps the more so because fast-food chains focus on uniformity, blandness and no surprises.  Nutritionally, it generally provides much more than one needs, particularly of ‘‘bad’’ things like sugars, salt, fats and processed cardboard, and often is an open incitement for the body to respond with a heart attack. It is a key part of the obesity epidemic, not least because the heaviest consumers are ingrained in their detestation of unnecessary exercise. So logically, it’s dumb to eat it. One would be far better buying a bean salad or a piece of fruit.

But the poor, the feckless and the people desperately struggling to make do on low incomes do not have the capacity to plan diets and organise shopping in a way that ekes out nicely over a fortnight. They do not necessarily have the routines about breakfast and lunch and dinner that are described in the domestic science book, nor do they necessarily live in a nice nuclear family, with one or two providers and two or three children.

The Australian underclass represents perhaps 15 per cent of the population – perhaps seven or eight in the ACT. A good many in it are shunned by others because they are seen as no-hopers, as second and third-generational welfare families without any habit of work, and as having too much interaction with the world of drugs, crime, mental illness and neglect.

Those who ponder high imprisonment rates for Aborigines when they represent only a low (two or three per cent) proportion of the population often fail to realise that most of the jailed or institutionalised population comes from the underclass, and that Aboriginal Australians form about a third of the underclass. (There is, of course, also an Aboriginal working class and an Aboriginal middle class, but it is not their sons and daughters getting into trouble.)

Herding this underclass costs taxpayers an average of perhaps $200,000 a family in the costs of policemen, truant officers, welfare officers and officials breaching them for one or another infraction of rules devised by people with no idea for people who scarcely understand. Adapting better for them might save the nation a fortune.

The children of the underclass are usually materially poor, as well as in deficit for care and attention, health and educational opportunity. Many observers feel that their mothers are reckless as well as feckless – in their hearts knowing better, whether about diet, health care, school or discipline, yet unwilling to provide it.

I’m not so sure. But if we were to decide to require people to be healthy and to eat good foods, and, as a corollary, if we were to decide to punish and lock up parents who allow their children great quantities of sugar and salt, soft drink and trans fats, one could be sure that the crusaders would, as ever, be snatching away first the ones who have seemed, for 60 years or more, to buy the most soft drink and potato chips, fast food and lollies.

We might spoil almost the only fun, and sense of superiority, they get.

Jack Waterford is The Canberra Times' editor-at-large