As part of my research for my next book, I've been reading Janet McCalman's fascinating history of the working-class inner Melbourne suburb of Richmond, Struggletown. She charts the ebb and flow of poverty and prosperity through the twentieth century, the impact of war and depression and changing social mores on the lives of Richmond's inhabitants, from 1900 to 1965. Published in 1984, the photos show how much Richmond has changed and become gentrified even in the last three decades.

As I read, it struck me that the book closely traces the course of my own grandmother's life. Doris was born in 1905 in North Carlton, and as a young woman worked in the 'rag trade' for one of the dressmakers in Flinders Lane (as did some of the Richmond interviewees). She was a child during World War I, but when the Depression hit she was married with a young family, living in Thornbury; they were lucky that my grandfather kept his job, and the extended family were able to help out. My grandfather didn't fight in the Second World War; the family story (half-joking, or perhaps not!) is that 'Nana wouldn't let him.' Or perhaps his job as a clerk with Dunlop Tyres was regarded as essential? In the 50s, my grandparents moved from the inner suburbs to a new house in Cheltenham, where they lived for most of the rest of their lives. And finally at eighty, Doris moved in with her youngest daughter (my mother) and her husband, and she lived with them for ten years, until her death in 1996.

Nana was definitely what Janet McCalman would categorise as a "respectable" type.

Respectability prescribed disciplines in behaviour... cleanliness, sobriety, extramarital chastity, thrift, time-consciousness, self-reliance, independence and responsibility...

As I read this list, I couldn't help thinking, yep, that's Nana. Like many of the "respectable" Richmond residents interviewed by McCalman, she disapproved of alcohol and feared the destructive effects of alcoholism. She lived within a narrow hedge of conservative social rules, which led the adolescent me to argue passionately with her. (To be fair, I think she quite enjoyed those arguments; she was so convinced she was right, I never made the slightest dent in her self-assurance.) It seemed to me that she was anti-sex, anti-pleasure, even anti-nature (she didn't like trees) -- opposed, almost on principle, to anything that could be construed as fun.

But in hindsight, I can see that those rigid, self-disciplined rules must have given her security, and perhaps protected her and her family during the hard times she'd lived through. Nana was nothing if not stubborn, and this inflexibility used to drive me mad, but that iron will must have helped her to survive.

And she did know how to have fun. As a young woman, she acted in radio plays, sang in choirs and toured rural towns with a theatrical group. She used to boast of modelling clothes for clients at the fashionable dressmaker's where she worked before she married. My Nana, the supermodel! (As she was a tiny woman, less than five feet tall, I doubt she would have cut it on the catwalk these days.)

I wanted to read Struggletown to learn about Melbourne history, but it's also given me an insight into my family history and psychology that I wasn't expecting to gain. Well worth reading.

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