I’ve been living in a bit of a news vacuum lately, largely because The Bloke and I took the family north to Fraser Island during the recent school holidays and road tripped back via Noosa, Kingscliff and Port Macquarie. It was a nostalgic trip for both of us, particularly as we got to share many childhood memories of summers spent at Fingal Head and Rainbow Bay, separated only by the Tweed River and the many years it would take for us to finally meet.
In all honesty, I can’t say I missed not hearing or reading the news while we were away: in some of the places we stayed mobile coverage was patchy (at best), and I soon discovered it did not take me long to disconnect from the 24 hour news cycle. Instead, I found myself realising how much news — and many other things — have changed since I was a kid. During my childhood, news was something you got from the radio or from a newspaper you were sent to buy from the corner shop.
For me, remembering these things conjures up images of the local Milk Bar, with its signs advertising Streets Icecream (still allowed) and Winfield Blues (before cigarette advertising was banned). Outside there were metal stands displaying the newspaper headlines for the day in big, black block letters, and the door was shrouded with a faded plastic strip curtain — a vaguely successful attempt to keep flies and mosquitoes at bay.
Inside the Milk Bar was an Aladdin’s cave of multicoloured sweets — Redskins, Milkos, Curly Wurlys, long plastic straws filled with sherbert, even fake candy cigarettes (also long since banned). There were Chocolate Paddlepops and Cool Sharks in deep freezer chests, cartons of milk and cans of Passiona in noisy refrigerators, loaves of bread on wire racks, and a bain marie beside the counter containing Chiko Rolls and other dubious delicacies of questionable provenance. A insect zapper cast a weird blue light from the wall behind the register, which was filled otherwise with packets and cartons of cigarettes.
On the floor near the door were the stacks of newspapers, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mirror. I learned the hard way that the copy of the Herald on the top of the pile (which was usually weighed down with half a brick) was always a bit worse for wear. Better to take the second or third one down than to risk Dad getting tetchy about rips. They were huge broadsheet editions — twice the size of today’s paltry offerings — with the TV guide printed on pale blue newspaper (or was it pale pink?) and the form guide on pale yellow. I loved reading Column 8, with all its quirks and urban myths.
I don’t really remember a time when I couldn’t read, since my mother started teaching me when I was about three, but one of the earliest things I recall reading in a newspaper was a huge article about one of the appeals in the Azaria Chamberlain case. Azaria was taken by a dingo at Ayres Rock (now known by its much older name, Uluru) in 1980, when I was four years old, but some of the appeals against Lindy Chamberlain’s conviction were heard in 1983 and 1984, when I was about seven. I devoured that piece of writing with morbid curiosity, simultaneously fascinated by details about camera cases and missing matinee jackets, and horrified by the idea of a mother — anyone’s mother — being in jail.
Our radio, and old National model plugged into a power socket on the kitchen bench, brought news bulletins about the Falklands War, of Prince Charles getting engaged to Lady Di, of petrol strikes and of planes being hijacked in the Middle East. We were always warned to be silent during the news (Dad again), and especially when they read the weather, which often forecast rain on the adjacent ranges. I always wondered as a child where the Adjacent Ranges (or as I heard it, the A-Jason Ranges, which I imagined had been named after one of the kids up the street) were. Perhaps they were near the Snowy Mountains, I thought. Or maybe they were part of the Great Dividing Range? It wasn’t until years later that I corrected my own misunderstanding.
Weirdly, though perhaps not unexpectedly, most of the news stories I remember from childhood were unpleasant reports, not just of Azaria Chamberlain being taken by a dingo but, slightly later, of appalling murders: Anita Cobby, Sallyanne Huckstepp, Samantha Knight. I was intermittently aware of poltical doings — it was hard not to be with Bob Hawke as Prime Minister and Paul Keating as Treasurer. Being an ordinary Australian child, I was also swept along in a running undercurrent of anything related to sport, from the Commonwealth Games in Brisbane in 1982, to the Melbourne Cup every November, to Australia II winning the America’s Cup, to all the times Parramatta appeared in the Rugby League Grand Finals in the 1980s and cemented my undying support for the Eels.
I miss the Milk Bar of my childhood.
There are a few left, here and there, remnants of a world that existed long before I could check breaking news by glancing at my phone.
But what I realise, writing this, is that I don’t miss the Milk Bar itself: I miss the simpler times in which I lived. They weren’t golden days, by any means — my memories of murders and wars and all manner of mayhem make that clear.
They were simpler because I was a child, and did not have to shoulder the adult burden of living in and responding to the world and all its imperfections.
For me, disconnecting from the news means setting that burden down for a while. It means identifying how important it is to preserve, where possible, the simplicity of life for my own children. It means allowing myself to remember the broadsheets and broadcasts of times gone by, to see the many things have changed since then.
And some things, strangely enough, remain just as they always were — just like Chiko Rolls and Passiona.