2019, 303 p.
When you live in Heidelberg, not far from the former West Heidelberg Olympic Village, you’re very aware of 1956 and its importance to Melbourne. Every four years, fifty years, sixty five years…the anniversary opportunities keep rolling on. In popular Melbourne memory, the Olympics and the arrival of television were the quintessential events of 1956, but as Nick Richardson points out in his book 1956: The year Australia welcomed the world, there were other currents running through the year as well. In his preface, Richardson writes:
One of the hardest clichés in Australian history is that the 1950s was a dull decade, when conformity settled on the nation’s shoulders, not to leave until the dynamic 1960s. Yet even the slightest scratching of the historical record reveals that there was significantly more going on that this cliché would have us believe. The decade was distinguished by drama, innovation, social change, a loosening of British ties, a big boost in migration, and the rise of consumerism. Australia was already on the path to being a different country by the time 1960 arrived. And the pivotal year in the preceding decade was 1956, when a series of important events – some accidental, others years in the planning – were critical in shaping the nation. (p. xi)
At times this book felt a bit like a television retrospective on 1956, particularly when dealing with events that have a strong visual or auditory presence. There are the images we have of ‘golden moments’ in the Olympics; a nuclear mushroom cloud that we associate with Maralinga or the looming presence and voice of Sir Robert Menzies. But Richardson does move beyond these easy images to explore the political and cultural aspects of 1956 as well.
The prologue starts with April 1949 when Melbourne was actually awarded the Olympic Games. The selection of Melbourne was not at all a foregone conclusion, and Australia relied on ’empire men’ to support them. Not only was there the problem of distance, but other countries were well aware of Australia’s White Australia policy. The RSL, Australian nurse Sister Vivian Bullwinkel, and the then- Immigration Minister Arthur Calwell didn’t want any Japanese entering Australia (in 1949 it was the Chifley Labor government, which lost power that year). Ironically, it was the Japanese delegate’s vote that clinched it for Melbourne.
Moving then to 1955-56, the book is divided into the seasons from Summer 1955-56 through to Summer 1956-57. Within this chronological structure, Richardson interweaves other themes including the Cold War, the Suez Crisis, the British nuclear tests, the debate over poker machines in NSW pubs. I was aware of these things, but hadn’t actually connected them. Most particularly, it hadn’t registered with me that the work for the games commenced under John Cain Snr’s Labor government, and that by the time the games were actually held, there was a new government. I didn’t really know that Menzies stuck his neck out so far over the Suez Crisis, just to keep in with ‘home’. Menzies still had another 10 years to go as Prime Minister, but he seemed an anachronism here. I hadn’t realized that there was a parallel Arts program conducted alongside the Olympics, and I don’t think that many people at the time did either. It seemed to be very much a sideline activity.
As a local, I was interested in reading about the Olympic Village in West Heidelberg. The village was opened up for journalists on the first week of September and Sun reporter Harry Gordon was horrified to see that the street names were named after famous WWII battles – rather insensitive given that some of the athletes came from these countries. The names had been chosen for a housing commission development before the land was offered as the Olympic Games village, and they had not been changed. There was a last minute panic to change the names, which have reverted today to the original battle-based names. There was a scheme to involve local women in the “Housewives Brigade” to make beds and tidy the athletes’ rooms in the mornings, after dropping the kids off at school. They received payment for making the 6,000 beds a day.
There was an almost bashful fear that there would be a stuff-up for the opening ceremony, which was held on 22 November, a 27 degree day, after cool and wet days leading up to the Games. There were snafus and near-misses, the sort of anecdotes and tales that are greeting with gales of laughter afterwards, but it went better than anyone even hoped. I can remember a similar feeling with the 1988 Sydney Olympics – that fear that we would come over as hokey.
This book interweaves political, social, cultural diplomatic and sporting history, while following the chronological confines that Richardson has chosen for himself. There were big egos at play amongst the Olympic impresarios, as there still are today. But moving beyond the IOC movers and shakers (Sir Frank Beaurepaire, Avery Brundage etc) Richardson has chosen lesser-known individuals – the medal maker, a Ukrainian asylum seeker who escaped during the games, athlete Marlene Mathews (never heard of her), media producers in the infant television industry. He traces through their stories as well – quite a narrative balancing act.
The book has footnotes and a reference list, but I think that it sorely lacks an index.
I felt as if he was tracing over familiar territory, and the breezy journalistic tone did make the book feel like a documentary. Nonetheless, Richardson certainly broadened my perspective on 1956 and helped me to tie together disparate themes that gave the year more gravitas than just Olympics and television.
There are a couple of Radio National interviews with Phillip Adams on Late Night Live, and with the excellent Richard Fidler on Conversations, and it was the latter that prompted me to read the book.
My rating: 7.5
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library