Blogging in Exile: The Razor in the Closet Sunday, Jan 2 2011 

My local library rocks, when it’s not full of backpackers sating their wifi needs. Not only did I pick up Cold Print and Inglourious Basterds, but also Larry Writer’s excellent Razor, a history of East Sydney’s razor gangs of the 1920s to 1940s. Not only is it a fascinating read, but it also poses a few awkward questions.

Australia never had Prohibition per se, but in 1916, around 5000 soldiers rioted, looted and drank outer-suburban Liverpool dry, before heading into the centre of Sydney to do the same. After three days of drunken mayhem, the state government instituted the Liquor Act, and a referendum later that year saddled New South Wales with what was known as the Six-o’clock Swill: until it was repealed in 1955, pubs were banned from serving alcohol after 6pm.

In the wake of this, the “sly grog” trade sprang up, serving often watered-down drinks after hours; Sydney’s sly-groggeries were somewhat analogous to America’s speakeasies. By the Depression, many Sydneysiders couldn’t afford to go the track, but would bet nonetheless, so the provision of sly grog went arm-in-arm with prostitution, illegal, off-track SP betting and cocaine traffic.

Family legend has it that my grandfather was distantly descended from English and Spanish gentry, and (aside from one black sheep) my grandmother from decent, but hard-working, Scots and Irish migrants. But genealogy shows that both came largely from convict stock, transported to Australia in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

In the late 1920s to the early 1940s—records show, for much longer than I’d been led to believe—my grandfather was a talented boxer. He and my grandmother drove taxis in central Sydney. At other times, he worked as a bookmaker; family whispers suggest that my grandfather’s bookmaking may have taken place off-track. (A rumoured feud with the Waterhouse family, however, hints that he may occasionally have seen horse flesh.)

My grandfather was in the habit of concealing cash about his person—the bag with his bookmaking takings was mostly rolls of banknote-sized pieces of newspaper, rolled up with only a few small-denomination notes on top. Presumably, this was to foil standover men, protection racketeers who specialise in victimising small-time criminals. (Mark “Chopper” Read is a relatively modern example.)

My grandmother always kept a loaded rifle in the house. And she was tough, never having trouble from male taxi passengers in that relatively lawless era, and—family legends once again attest—holding her own a couple of decades later in an on-air run-in with Germaine Greer.

At one point, at least, they were wealthy enough to afford waterfront property at the western end of the harbour. But in the early 1940s, as war raged across the world, they settled down: my grandfather enlisted and became a mechanic at de Havilland‘s facility near Bankstown Airport, and my grandmother raised their daughters, renovated a series of houses and ran a fruit-and-vegetable shop. They moved out to Fairfield, then (as now) home to many of Sydney’s New Australians. Although they never discussed it, it seems that their fortunes had waned.


Guest Post from the Grave Wednesday, Jun 6 2007 

In which our intrepid hero digs up something he meant to post over a year ago.

It was my sister’s birthday last Friday, and Mim K/W and I are still waiting on presents to arrive so we can bundle them up and send them on. One of them features a quote by Albert Schweitzer (I’m not giving too much away in case my sister reads this), and it reminded me of something I meant to post here as far back as April last year.

Leslie Allerton Jacobs (b. 1903 Lambeth, UK) was my paternal grandfather. He was also the first Principal of Harristown High School in Toowoomba, Queensland. My sister took a trip to Toowoomba a couple of years ago and dug up a bit of information on him from the local Historical Society archives. She gave me a copy of this editorial from a November 1965 (I think) school newsletter:

My Good Friends,

How would you like to be a brilliant doctor and a world-famous authority on obscure diseases? Or a gifted author, with your books sought after in a dozen other countries? Or perhaps a talented organist, with an international reputation as the foremost living exponent of Bach?

More importantly—if you possessed any of the talents I have suggested, just how would you use them? Would you establish an elaborate clinic among the specialists, extract fat fees from fatuous patients, and spend lengthy vacations on your expensive yacht? Would you give up writing, except for an occasional book when your fans clamoured loudly enough, meanwhile living in luxurious retirement on the French Riviera? Would you tour the world, accepting engagements to perform only in the Best Places before the Best People?

Don’t feel too badly if these suggestions match perfectly your ideas of Glorious Well-earned Success: believe me, you would be positively abnormal if you felt otherwise.

There must have been something positively abnormal about that young fellow from the small country town in Alsace. While still in his twenties, he was renowned all over Europe as a great organist, specialising in the works of Bach.

Despite this success, he felt that he was not fulfilling his true purpose in life; his troubled mind found peace in the call of the Church, in which he acquired a wide reputation for his outspoken views on religious matters; he wrote several brilliant but highly controversial books that became best-sellers.

Firmly established as a great musician and gifted writer, what normal person could ask for more? But remember this young man was not accounted normal. Still striving to discover the task for which he felt destined, he sought and obtained permission from his Church to go as a missionary to the Congo. The squalor, privation, and disease among the primitive tribes shocked him so deeply that he returned home; not to his former life of ease, but to qualify as a doctor of medicine. He had found his vocation: to devote the rest of his life to the alleviation of suffering and hardships in the African jungle.

He spent the next fifty-two years cut off from the white race, living under the same crude conditions as his black proteges, and ministering to all their physical and spiritual needs; returning to civilisation in rare, brief visits only when he needed to raise more money by giving lectures and organ recitals. He died last September, in his native headquarters, at the age of ninety, mourned by his revering “children” and a large portion of the civilised world.

You and I are too normal to expect to equal him in talents or dedication; but perhaps his example will serve as a spur to develop our lesser talents and use them faithfully and honourably.

I humbly dedicate my Page to the memory of Albert Schweitzer of Lambarene, a real “way-out”—one of God’s Own Way-Outs.

My grandfather died in 1977. I was too young to remember him in person, so I remember him through keepsakes and passages like these.

It strikes me as eerie just how much I have in common with him, a man 72 years older than myself, whose life is mostly a cipher to me. I’m not nearly as religious as he was, but there are traces of attitudes that have filtered down the generations that survive in me today, like the necessity of the learned to serve the underprivileged.

I don’t what he looked like, but every time I look in the mirror, I suspect I see suggestions of a face that lives on in his descendants. And as I read what he wrote, I see the remnants of a mind which has likewise carried down the generations.

    A Case of the Wilkinsons Wednesday, May 23 2007 

    In which our intrepid hero delves further into the black history of his progenitors.

    I’m about 1700 entries into my family tree, and I’ve noticed a couple of problems. The first would be familiar to Sandman readers—Wilkinson articulated it A Game of You:

    I was one of seventeen children. We were all named Wilkinson—I suppose it was roughest on the girls, but we all got used to it in the end. I blame the parents, really. […]

    Mustn’t grumble. Our parents were the salt of the earth. Lovely people. It was just when they found a name they liked, they stuck with it.

    Imagine a family; we’ll call them the Bakers. Thomas Baker married Mary. Thomas’ father, also named Thomas, married a Mary, and Mary’s father, Thomas, did the same.

    Now, our original couple, Thomas and Mary Baker, settled down in the backwoods of wherever and had twelve kids.

    Their first daughter, Mary, died at the age of six months, so they named their next daughter Mary—and she died in childbirth. Their next child was a boy, so they named him Thomas. And Thomas promptly died on them, so they had another daughter, who they named Mary. This time, they got lucky, and Mary Jr lived to adulthood. Her younger brother, Thomas Jr, survived, too, helping to raise their younger sister, Mary Ann.

    Thomas Jr met a nice young lass named Mary, and Mary Jr and Mary Ann both married Thomases when they came of age. Thomas Jr’s wife died after popping out fifteen children, so he remarried, to another lass named—you guessed it—Mary.

    Repeat for four or five generations, and watch your humble blogger go slowly mad, trying to keep track of them.

    The other annoying thing is just how much people used to breed before the advent of that great libido-draining phenomenon we lovingly refer to as television. It’s one thing to fill in a family with two or three children per generation, but try keeping track of twelve to fifteen. These people obviously took their barefoot and pregnant very seriously, indeed.

    Still, I can’t help but dream that I might find a Delapore in the family line. That would rate well off the awesome scale.

      Genealogy in the Third Dimension Monday, May 7 2007 

      In which our intrepid hero traces his family tree.

      Several months ago, I was pottering around on the Net, looking for a reference to my father’s role in the introduction of jujutsu to Australia. I couldn’t find it, but instead, I found a goldmine: a family tree of my paternal grandfather’s mother’s line, going all the way back to the mid-17th century.

      This discovery resparked an interest in genealogy amongst the family. My maternal grandmother had placed a ban on researching her ancestry (in order to conceal a few skeletons in the family closet), but since her death in December, it’s been open season.

      My aunt recently discovered a letter to my grandmother from 1984, detailing their descent from a convict who arrived in Australia in 1792. She forwarded me a copy of this letter last week, and I’ve been diligently adding to my family tree at Geni ever since—hence the lack of activity here lately.

      I’m up to around 800 entries at the moment, with the promise of many more to come.

      I’ve discovered a few surprises, such as large concentrations of ancestors around Mudgee and Kurrajong, a line highborn in family lore actually descending from convict stock, and four siblings from one family who married members of another.

      This last sort of relationship is difficult to chart on a traditional tree. In order to clearly show lineages, you would need to plot it in three dimensions, or set up hyperlinks—which, fortunately, Geni does.

      I’ve yet to research the line on the main tree that would require such hyperlinkage, but an unrelated line yielded just such a relationship: two sisters married cousins. It’s fiddly to do with Geni’s software, but possible, and yields satisfactory results.

      Ancestry‘s database is down at the moment, which frees me for other things, like blogging and watching Gunpowder, Treason & Plot on DVD. It’s not such a bad thing—I need the break. It’s an enormous task I’ve set myself, and I really don’t want to burn out…