I was seventeen and living in a tiny basement flat in London when Britain joined the European Economic Community in 1973.
My flat was located below a rather grand house in Regents Park, only one block away from London Zoo. At night I could hear strange sounds. Lions roaring, monkeys chattering. The couple who owned the house walked their dog on Primrose Hill on Sunday afternoons and invited me to join them for a pre-dinner drink every now and then. We would sit around awkwardly discussing our respective weeks. The husband wore a three piece suit every day and worked in the city. On Sundays, he affected a black polo neck jumper and slacks.
I was graciously allowed to live in their basement for a very reasonable rent in exchange for some light baby-sitting duties, which suited me just fine. I always felt rather like a country hick in their presence, coming from the colonies and having no experience of the world.
I’d arrived in London with one ten-pound travellers’ cheque and big dreams of a new life away from my home in Perth, West Australia, then a fairly small provincial city. I travelled to England on a huge Italian cruise ship, the Galileo Galilei, setting off from the port of Fremantle with my best friend Helena, a pretty and outgoing blonde woman, a couple of years my senior. It may sound like I was rather brave setting out to travel halfway across the world at that young age, but in those days young people often left home before they were 20. I was eager to escape the confines of my small city. I wanted adventure and a bigger, more interesting life.
The sea journey took three weeks stopping in Cape Town, Majorca and Malta, and finally berthing in Genoa. From there we travelled by train through Italy, Austria, Germany and Holland, and then across to Folkstone on the ferry. A couple of English boys explained that in the UK being ‘knocked up’ meant being woken up in the morning, rather than getting pregnant. We realised that things might be a little different in our adopted country.
As soon as we arrived, we set about finding work.
Employment was easy to find, so all we had to do was survive until we got our first pay cheque. My mother had secretly packed my yellow sea trunk with supplies of tuna and tinned fruit. There was even a jar of my favourite pickled onions. I was grateful for them in the weeks between starting work as a photographic printer and getting paid. At my first job interview I was informed that juniors (people under 18) were paid less than seniors, so I lied about my age and said I was 19 instead of 17. I looked a lot older than I was, so everyone believed me. It only became a problem when birthdays came around, people wondered why I never turned 21. By the time I actually did turn 21, I was back in Sydney raising my beautiful baby daughter.
I soon learnt that there were certain things that you did and didn’t talk about.
In Australia, it would be unthinkable to ask someone who they voted for. To this day, I would not know who my mother voted for in any election. You could take a wild guess based on someone’s attitudes to social issues, but you would never ask someone outright. It was quite different in the UK, people would not only ask you directly, they also didn’t seem to worry about not bothering to turn up to vote. In Australia, voting is compulsory and always has been, and people take the right to vote very seriously, so 40 years later, when I heard about the whole Brexit saga being brought about by people not bothering to vote, I kind of thought it served them right.
In 1973 I was quite affronted that Britain had chosen to join the Common Market rather than maintaining their strong economic ties with the Commonwealth. In Australia, there were lots of concerns about what we would do with all our sugar. At the time, Australia was a major food supplier to the UK so when they joined the Common Market it effectively closed the British market to many Australian exports, including sugar.
The UK had previously applied to join the EEC in 1963 and 1967 but were refused because the French President, Charles de Gaulle was suspicious about their intentions.
There was never any love lost between the British and the French.
It was rumoured that he feared that English would suddenly become the common language of the community.
In January of 1974 I turned 18, just in time to vote in a general election. I was amazed to find that I was allowed to vote, despite not being a British citizen. Being from a Commonwealth country was still kind of special and Australians and New Zealanders had a privileged status. We had our own queue at the airport and were fast-tracked through immigration along with the locals. We weren’t required to line up in the ‘alien’ queue with all the other non-British people.
I was eager to use my vote and remember being quite interested in the views of a political group who advocated that should Britain retain close ties with “the colonies”. Fortunately, I didn’t vote for the political party that I later discovered was The National Front, a bunch of violent neo-Nazi sympathisers. I still cringe when I think about how naïve I was, but it did give me an understanding of how easily neo-nationalism can lead to darker things. I still hate the mindless flag waving and jingoism that occurs on Australia Day. For me it’s a mere step away from the skinheads and bovver boys smashing windows and painting racist slogans on the sides of buildings.
In the 47 years since Britain joined the European Economic Community, I’ve returned to Australia, gotten married, raised three children, had three careers and travelled the world. I like to think that I’m older and wiser, but I also like to think that I’m still up for new adventures. It’s interesting to reflect on how my history has shaped my views of the world and my place in it. It’s taken a lifetime to get over feeling like I’m not quite cultured enough to hang out with rich people. It’s made me fiercely independent, (sometimes foolishly so), and careful with money (you never know when you might suddenly need to leave the country), but most of all it tells me that when one door closes, another one often opens.
So good luck with brexit Britain. If you need some sugar, just let us know.