Lazy Luddite Log

28.3.14

Life In The Suburbs

Last week I was interviewed for the Australian Generations Oral History Project. The organizers had called for expressions of interest from Gen-Xers and I had volunteered. In two sessions over five hours I basically had a recorded chat with the interviewer. I'm a good talker but still I was surprised that by the end of session one we had only gotten to my uni days. Mind you the interviewer deemed the lives of my parents to be part of my history so I had to try and recall what I knew. It was almost as if my own life extends backwards to the last World War.

The job of an interviewer is to let the interviewee provide the content but every so often she confirmed some statement of mine with a nod or a smile. I remarked that my father (a German migrant) seemed to have an interest in the cultural product of any migrant culture (saying that this is why SBS was a part of our family viewing) and my interviewer suggested that this is indeed a thing among migrants of various backgrounds.

Entertainment media seemed to play a big part of my childhood recollections (hardly surprising given a lot of my blogging topics). One thing I noted was that my mother has always listened to talk-back radio and as such my exposure to music was limited as a child and that at one time my favourite tunes were television themes.

My interviewer was interested in many things that I consider mundane such as family eating habits. I imagine that this information will contribute to the massive pool of data they are collecting on the changing behaviours of households. This is the history of ordinary Australians after all.

Except in this case 'ordinary' simply means everyone but the eminent members of society and historically significant figures. Within that mass will be a huge variety that undermines the notion of ordinary as average. And as we moved into the second session my interviewer showed a particular interest in those aspects of my life that are unusual for my generation. In particular she focused on two things.

One was the long-term practice of living in share households. The other was using common interests as a way of finding and forming a sense of local community. I talked of my own experiences and those of friends (never naming names) to describe a few different forms of household (which in some cases also represent alternative forms of 'family'). I shared my own experience of finding a community life from common interests (rather than simply from work or sport or traditional family). I even talked of my transition into non-standard relationship models. These things make me a bit odd for someone my age. They are also perceived as something different for an inhabitant of the suburbs.

To some extent if you practice alternative ways-of-life that is deemed as a bit of an 'urban cultural elite' thing from the inner suburbs. And in contrast if you are 'suburban' you are perceived as living a life bereft of distinctiveness. A well-known satirist recently annoyed me with her written description of Chadstone Shopping Centre as a life-sucking sterile "Shrine To Mammon" visited by anonymous 'wage slaves'. Honestly any concentration of shops is dedicated to making a buck. This includes the Camberwell Junction. It even includes Brunswick Street. But what we sometimes overlook is that culture can assert itself in any location. Things I have done at Chaddy include buying and painting my own ceramic figure as part of a group activity... seeing an alternative Australian speculative fiction movie with friends and then critiquing it afterwards over coffee... agitating for the management to introduce recycling bins within the centre...

There is a saying that "there are queers in the suburbs too". As if anyone ever needed to be told that. Likewise there are goths and geeks and pagans and ferals in those sleepy backstreets. The fantastic cultural diversity of our neighbourhoods is further complicated by all kinds of sub-cultures. With any luck demographers and historians will form a more accurate picture of Australian society than commentators of all stripes do. I hope my contribution to the Australian Generations project is to help develop a fuller image of our society than is provided by simplistic caricatures.

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