Weather

When you are writing up your family history, don’t forget the weather.

Sydney is suffering today from a few days of hot weather. We are always shocked when it gets hot like this, with the north-westerly wind straight from the desert, and we hide inside with our air-conditioners. At least, that’s what I do.

Our reliance on domestic air-conditioning has developed during my life time. Where I grew up, in Dubbo in central western New South Wales, we got days like this quite frequently in summer. It’s a dry heat, with little humidity. We had an evaporative air-cooler, which was an air-conditioner-shaped box on a stand with wheels that you filled up with water and turned it on. It would blow air, cooled by the water, in the direction you pointed it.

In the evenings, when the sun was low but still quite bright, we would go outside and sit in the shade, much cooler than inside the house. Any slight breeze was made the most of out there. But of course the cooking still had to be done inside, on the stove or in the oven, heating the kitchen, at least, even more.

I went to a high school that was growing faster than the buildings to contain it. We had two demountable classrooms, which were spare classrooms that could be trucked in in pieces and put together onsite quickly. They had a metal roof and were like ovens in summer. We hated them. A class in one of those rooms was torture. I believe those classrooms are still there, in the same place on the edge of the oval, with air-conditioning in them, with more recently erected classrooms alongside.

Christmas Day was spent cooking a large hot meal with roast chicken and vegetables and plum pudding. Chickens were expensive in those days, without battery hen houses, and turkeys even more so. We always had a box of cherries that my grandfather would buy on his annual trip to Sydney. As a special treat we might have bottles of soft drink with dinner. After dinner we would go somewhere and sit, or lie, as still as possible.

Imagine, then, what it was like for our ancestors! What a shock this heat must have been, for those new immigrants!

The clothes of the eighteenth century did not leave any skin bare except for the hands and perhaps the forearms, so they would have been hot, even though they were made of natural materials. They didn’t just wear them once and toss them in the laundry basket, either, as we do. Water wasn’t on tap, for washing clothes, or people, or anything else, but brought by bucket from a dam or river. Kids didn’t play under the hose when it was hot, as we did.

Work had to be done whatever the weather, then as now. Offices weren’t air-conditioned, and I imagine the clerks with their beautiful handwriting in their shirtsleeves on days like today, trying not to get sweat on the big registers we look at now in the archives. The paper was thicker, and I guess it could withstand a bit of moisture!

Farming was mostly small holdings, with little money for livestock, let alone air-conditioned trucks and farm machinery. Farmers are tougher than most of us even now, in their shirtsleeves and hats, out in the fields mending fences, ploughing, harvesting, hay-baling… there is always a long list of jobs a farmer has to do.

Admittedly, they did build houses more practically in those days. Houses had high ceilings and many were of double brick. Farm houses had verandahs all around. But the corrugated iron roof was cheaper than tiles, and it’s incredibly hot to live under. Early houses were mud brick and thatch or corrugated iron.

We talk about global warming and so we may assume that the weather was different in  our ancestors’ day than it is now, but look at any newspaper of the period and you can see that generally it was much the same. Perhaps it rained more but that goes in cycles. They had drought, fires, floods, too much rain, not enough rain, and days that were just too hot to bear.

Just like us.

What to do

  • Ask your parents what the weather was like for them when they were young. Did it get hot like this? What did they do to keep cool?
  • Ask your grandparents and their generation the same questions.
  • Look through local newspapers from this time of year. You may see stories about record temperatures, bushfires, dam water levels – similar stories to those we see today.
  • look at climate statistics for your local area at the Bureau of Meteorology. Look at the average monthly temperature and rainfall and imagine what that meant for day-to-day living.
  • Put on a long, high-necked dress and go shopping! (just kidding)

Recording Dad’s story for posterity

My Dad’s Story

My Dad has been staying with me lately, and he has decided to write a book about his life. I am very encouraging of this plan, as you can imagine, and I told him I would help him to organise the material for him. He has had an interesting life, in Fiji and Australia, and has mixed with a lot of interesting people in both countries. 

At first I think he thought that he had to sit down and write the whole thing from beginning to end, ready to be published. He got up one morning and said he had been thinking about how to start it. He wanted to start with the funeral of his late wife, my step-mother, which took place last November, and then go back to the beginning, a time-honoured structure which is none the worse for having been used before.

Write first, rearrange later

I suggested to him that he didn’t have to write it from beginning to end in one go, but should just write episodes as he thought of them. If he remembered something that happened when he was a boy he should write that bit down, and so on. I would then help him to put it all together afterwards; we could rearrange the bits into suitable chapters, and so on.

He seemed greatly relieved. Once the decision to write a book has been made many peopple think that the process is to sit down and write it all at once, from beginning to end. Perhaps fiction is written that way, but factual accounts need not be. A lot of editing and rearranging is usually done on the material before it is ready for publication. He went back to Fiji and no more was said.

Talking instead of writing

The other day he rang me and reminded me of our conversation in which he had said he would write a bit each day, every morning. I don’t remember him saying anything so detailed but I was pleased that he still wanted to go ahead and was committed to that extent.

His idea was that he would prefer to talk into a tape recorder. Every morning he could lie in bed and tape his memories, and then label and send me the tapes. I suggested that tape recorders might be rather thin on the ground these days, and he reminded me of his almost-total inability to deal with technology. I said I would look into something for him to record his stories, and send it to him.

Although this will mean more work for me I don’t mind. To have his voice recorded for posterity would be just as valuable as having his stories written down. I’m sure I can get help with the transcribing from other family members. Well, I hope I can.

Recording devices

So I need to find something that he can manage and that I can play back. He was imagining a little tape recorder like you see in old movies, with little cassette tapes.Even if I could find such a thing, I’d need two so I could play them back.

These days most options are digital, and there is no way that I can see him downloading files to his computer and emailing them to me. He only uses a computer to read the news on a couple of websites, and email is beyond him, despite some lessons from me and others. He just doesn’t want to learn, an attitude common to many, and the danger of files being deleted or overwritten is too great for me to seriously consider this option for him. 

So I am deliberating buying two or three MP3 players with recording capability. Whatever I choose will need to be foolproof and let him know when it is full. When he’s finished one he can send it to me, or bring it over next time he’s in the country, and I can give him another one to go on with. Perhaps I can use voice-recognition software to do the transcribing!

If anyone has any recommendations for MP3 players or other such devices I’d be grateful for your comments.

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