Mouse calls himself a crypto-philosopher, while I am a professional philosopher. “Crypto” is Mouse’s favourite word, or one of them anyway. It’s not a word I use. I tend to say “manqué”. That’s the benefit of an expensive Jesuit education. Mouse was educated in the school of hard knocks. He grew up poor. I grew up rich. We were unlikely friends. We used to hang out together all the time. We lived on opposite sides of a creek. Mouse lived in a shack; a tent, really, made of war surplus canvas bits and pieces and recycled packing cases and hidden deep in the bush: Mouse seemed to be as free as a bird. No chores, no homework, no music lessons! For some strange reason, this way of life was deeply attractive to me; I was Tom Sawyer to Mouse’s Huckleberry Finn. I lived in an expensive, deep waterfront holiday house, complete with boat ramp, jetty and saltwater pool; on the respectable side of the creek, of course. There were a lot more “don’ts” than “dos” in that house.
After the war, that’s the Second World War to you Generation Alphabets, you could find little shacks in the bush, all over. Many of them were occupied by a single inhabitant, usually a returned soldier, damaged by war and drink. But quite a few were occupied by families, doing it hard; sometimes by war widows and a couple of scrawny kids; sometimes there was a dad, too, the whole family trying to claw back from the brink of poverty, after the Great Depression and the austerities of the war.
In our family, looking down on “ordinary people”, they all seemed to be one great undifferentiated mass, but the Bottomleys taught me there are many gradations and each one is important. First, at the very bottom came Australia’s first people, the aborigines. We didn’t know any Aborigines, and we knew nothing about that part of our history, so, like almost everyone else in those days, we alternated between seeing them as noble savages and degraded remnants of a dying race. Next came the “no-hopers”; people who were unemployed or unemployable. This was almost always “their own fault”. Next came the battlers – people who were trying to get enough money together to buy a block of land and send their kids to school. When they had the land they would build a garage, with a toilet and sink and a workbench that doubled as a kitchen, then they would live in it, which was illegal, unless the local authorities looked the other way, which, bless them, they often did in those days.
The Bottomleys aspired to become battlers. They had no money to build a garage but they did have a block of land. Finally you came to the respectable working class people: The tradespeople and the clerks – hard working, salt of the earth, but….you wouldn’t want your daughter to marry one. There were, of course, many finer distinctions. These mattered a lot to some people. And then there were tribal identities: Catholic, Protestant, Calathumpian; Scottish, Welsh, English etc. At a certain level, the families you were connected to mattered, or the year your ancestors came to Australia (triple score if they arrived on the “first” fleet….unless they came 50,000 years earlier, which didn’t count).
Fine distinctions were not confined to the common people. If you were near the top of the heap, even the street you lived in came with its own prestige score. Sometimes which side of the street you lived on mattered, as well as how you used a fork, whether you called the euphemism the toilet, the bathroom or the dunny, and lots more.