This beautifully written book, Immigrants and Spies: My Father, my memories, tells the story of a remarkable man, Noel W. Lamidey, who not only headed up one of Australia’s first immigration schemes after the WWII, but his role in the formation of ASIO as well. Told through the eyes of his youngest daughter, Barbara or Boo, it’s also the story of Australia post-World War One and Two and the role mainly white immigrants from the British colonies played in shaping what we are today.
Starting in the 1930s in Canberra, before seguing back in time and moving forward again (and taking us from England to Tasmania, Melbourne and the nation’s capital), this memoir also takes the reader on a journey through the post-Federation Australia, the Depression and then onto London and Europe and its rebuilding after the horrors of the Second World War.
While I loved reading about Barbara’s idyllic Australian childhood, her memories of school the neighbourhood, the apparent simplicity of life in then agrarian Canberra, and the loving close-knit family of which she was a part, the food they ate, the hobbies she engaged in, as well as meeting characters from Australia’s political and cultural history, I found the parts set in London and the politicking behind funding and organising the mass immigration (of almost all white folk) – and too many young children – to Australian shores from Britain and other colonial outposts, not only riveting, but relevant to today as well.
There’s no doubt, despite battling contrary personalities of different political persuasion, Noel Lamidey was a man with compassion and keen to do his job well. Certainly, from his daughter’s perspective and what his letters (parts of which are reprinted in the book) indicate, he was a man with a great deal of humanity who didn’t see the hundreds of thousands of displaced, broken, fearful people as a problem so much as a great potential which Australia could mutually benefit from.
Experiencing and witnessing first-hand the devastation of returning soldiers (British) who found the promised welcome and new life back “home” a shibboleth, seeing the terrible misery of the survivors of the Holocaust and the Nazi regime, Lamidey knew Australia was a solution. The only problem was, that while the English and Australian press basically produced propaganda to keep migrants keen and willing to uproot themselves for the promise of a new and better life, the reality was often very different.
Not only were the waves of migrants from the northern hemisphere unable to be accommodated in adequate housing in Australia, instead being put in internment camps where they were segregated by sex – including established families, but they were often met with contempt by Australians who feared their jobs would be taken. Rather than being regarded as “New Australians”, these migrants were quickly reminded they were “wogs, dagos, huns and pommy bastards” and made to feel unwelcome. Not by all, but enough for many to give up after a short time and return home. Not surprising when the promised housing was a freezing or boiling hut enclosed behind wire and shared with other men or women and you couldn’t see your loved ones. Sympathy was in short supply for those who “gave up” or complained and they were swiftly referred to as “whinging poms.”
Distressed by this situation, Lamidey would lament if only those so far away could see the conditions these immigrants had survived and wished to escape – then maybe, just maybe, compassion would be offered instead of name-calling; understanding that they felt let down instead of assuming ingratitude.
Despite all this, the book is neither sentimental nor judgemental, after all, this is, as the subtitle suggests, one woman’s memories – about her father, about life throughout these turbulent, remarkable years where, because of immigrants, the face of Australia would be forever changed and for the better. It might be easy to read this and feel uncomfortable with how obviously racially and culturally biased the immigration scheme was – but that was a fact – one upheld by the “White Australia policy” which wasn’t disbanded until the 1970s. But we mustn’t shy away from what was a part of our history, even if it was colour-blind.
As I read, I couldn’t help but compare much of what unfolded with what is happening today as our world is once again being torn apart by war – affecting people deeply and tragically; displacing them, rendering them not only homeless, but nation-less as well. And what do we do?
In one of his unpublished books held in the national archives, Aliens Control in Australia, and from which Barbara quotes, Lamidey makes this observation: “When passions are let loose by war it happens all too often that foreigners whether or not of enemy origin, and even locally born persons bearing foreign names, become the object of denunciation and persecution.”
He could have been writing about today. Plus ca?change
Exploring a particular slice of history and from an unapologetically narrow perspective, this is a fascinating and gorgeously told story that I couldn’t put down. The last ten pages are interviews with a few prominent Australian immigrants and their stories – and they resonated.
Like many people, I too come from an immigrant family – one side of my family escaped the Holocaust (and later, my mother came from Israel to start a new life here and give us one), and my other side came out from Ireland and Scotland. Likewise, Lamidey brought his new wife to Australia from England after serving in WWI, raising his family here before taking them to England as work dictated. His efforts and contributions, coloured by his mainly positive experiences as a migrant, made him determined to offer the same to others. Not always successful, he never stopped trying.
A terrific and, in the end, very positive book that will appeal to those interested in Australian and British history, politics, enjoy a well-written memoir, or just want to learn what it might have been like for their ancestors – the machinations behind their relatives/family’s decision to cross to the other side of the world.
There’s no doubt, Lamidey was a champion in his daughter’s eyes and, I suspect, he will be in many others’ as well.