Parallel histories or Things we have Lost
The tiny coloured ramekins, jugs and eggcups that line my kitchen windowsill were made by my father. In the early morning light they glisten like opals. Their glazes are smooth and rich. In the late 1940s imported glazes were hard to come by so my father sourced his pigments from the Dulux paint factory and made the glazes himself. My grandfather was also a potter who dug his own clay and built his own kilns. In my early childhood I imagined that making pottery was a very Australian occupation. Our house was awash with ceramics made by friends and relatives. We were so spoilt for beautiful crockery that we even used elegant, hand-thrown bowls to feed the cats.
For more than twenty years my father worked as a potter, building up his pottery from a tiny studio pottery in a shed in Sydney in the 1940s to a successful commercial pottery in Melbourne that employed a team of potters and artists who decorated the work. In the early 1960s, my father went to Canberra with other Australian potters to lodge a formal plea with the government not to remove tariffs that protected the Australian ceramics industry from being swamped by cheap imported crockery. Their bid failed.
Despite the fact that his work was popular – a ‘must-have’ for every Australian that aspired to stylish dining – my father had little confidence that his pottery would survive an influx of cheap imitations. So he sold the potteries before the inevitable slump and collapse of Australian commercial potteries. He committed himself to his deepest passion and became a full-time sculptor. In the long run, it proved a good move for him and our family but I always felt sorry for the artist who bought the business from my father. It lasted less than a decade once the restrictions against imports were removed.
Australians gained a huge range of cheap crockery but we lost access to a large body of studio and commercial pottery. There are still Australian potters working on a small scale but few can support themselves and you won’t find their work in mainstream shops. In the wake of the Australian productivity commission’s recommendation to lift restrictions on the import of books, I can’t help but draw comparisons.
If Australian publishing went the same way as Australian potteries, writing in this country would become the luxury of the hobbyist. Most Australian writers, if it is no longer possible to make a living from their work, will have to resort to other jobs and a huge body of Australian writing will be lost.
There have been a lot of articles in the newspapers and on the internet over the course of this year thrashing out the arguments for and against the removal of restrictions. Perhaps I should have written this post months ago but when authors were accused of being ‘greedy’, I felt a wearying grief that history was repeating itself. If you want to understand the situation fully, check out Saving Aussie Books and Australians for Australian Books.
Stories serve a very different purpose to aesthetic objects. Putting the cat’s food in a mass-produced bowl from China isn’t the same as reading a child a story that fails to reflect any aspect of their country’s history and culture. Everything changes but we should always be mindful of what will be lost in our haste to embrace the future.