I did most of my growing up in the kind of Shropshire town where everybody knows everybody else and there are certain family names that seem to crop up everywhere you turn. People seem to live in Wem, grow up in Wem, work in Wem or in one of the near by towns and raise their families in the same place. I wasn’t born there but I have spent long enough there to think of it as home and to get used to this lifestyle of staying put in the same area for all your life. Perhaps this is down to a lack of ambition or simply a love of living in the countryside, I don’t know. But what I do know is that many members of my family are much less enthusiastic about staying put in one place and were willing to move themselves, and their families, to completely different countries in pursuit of their careers and a new start in life.
Their choices resulted in one third of all my cousins being born and raised in Sydney, Australia and I was born in Hannover, Germany. Both my parents and my Uncle John moved to different countries through work and both ended up settling for longer than originally planned, permanently in John’s case.
My family is originally from an area on the edge of Leeds called Meanwood. It’s a very pretty area and everyone still proudly refers to it as ‘home’ even though they have moved away and settled elsewhere. Despite the happy memories and many fond visits back, my father pointed out to me when I first started our interview that “there’s more to life than Meanwood.” This made me think a little about my own feelings regarding Wem and I wondered, just a little, if maybe one day I’d get the urge to move on too.
It was my parents, Sue and Tim, who were the first to take the plunge and move overseas and, they said, it was a very easy decision to make; surprising, I thought, as they had two young children at the time and moving countries is a big change.
“As it was,” Sue said with a smile, “we had moved a couple of times before from Meanwood to Yeadon and then up to Newcastle so it wasn’t like we weren’t used to up heaving and moving out.”
Tim had been trying to get an overseas placement from work for a while after hearing of other people in the office’s adventures from their overseas posts. However, it took longer than he would have liked, due to office shake-ups and new recruitment pushes by the Ministry of Defence. He was, at the time, the only qualified Chartered Surveyor in the office still at the lower level and was denied promotion due to all the new recruitments going on. Having had enough of that Tim decided it was time to take action and threatened to leave because he knew perfectly well that he could get better pay for what he did elsewhere. That was all the persuasion needed for him to be offered a three-year posting in Hannover, Germany, which he immediately accepted.
My siblings, Chrystal, then six, and Andrew, five, took the news of their future move with an air of great excitement. Tim rang home from work as soon as he got the news about the move and Sue shouted through to Chrystal and Andrew, “We’re moving to Germany!” They then proceeded to skip up and down the hallway arm in arm happily chanting ‘We’re going to Germany!’ over and over until a thought struck them and they stopped to ask, ‘Where’s Germany?’
I asked whether they were worried about the effect the move would have on Chrystal and Andrew’s education but that, it appeared, was not much of an issue. The 80s teaching strikes that hit the UK education system didn’t affect the Services schools so their teaching was uninterrupted. Also, the residential trips and most other outings from school were much cheaper than they would have been in the UK as the army provided most of the transport free of charge.
“If nothing else we thought the move would broaden their horizons and add something special to their lives,” said Sue.
So, on the 4th of July 1985, Tim, Sue, Chrystal and Andrew set off to Germany on a ferry to start their new life.
My parents had never been abroad before this point so they had no idea what to expect with regards to what lay before them. It was a challenge in several different ways; they had to learn to live in a foreign country where they didn’t know the language or traditions, they had to learn to live in a military community and, in Tim’s case, he had to learn to work in a foreign country where the rules and boundaries were different to those he knew at home.
So along with the excitement that came with the move, there were a lot of things to be nervous about. But facing them as a family made it easier and it was more fun to view it as an adventure together than a move away from ‘home’.
As far as Sue was concerned the posting was like one long holiday in a new and exciting country, all she had to do was look after the kids! They were better off financially and everything in the military shops and bars was far cheaper than back in England due to not having to pay any VAT; just one of the added bonuses to their new living situation.
This financial improvement meant that they were able to buy a brand new Mitsubishi Shogun, imported from Japan to Germany as part of the UK allocation for the following year. It was chosen as it could be used for Tim’s off-road work as well as a large family car. Though Chrystal was forever disappointed that it did not come with the horsebox that was behind the Shogun they saw at the Hannover Messe Horse Show.
The Shogun was well used and much loved. Their new home on mainland Europe meant that holidaying became much cheaper as they were able to drive to other countries and save on travel costs. In their time in Germany they travelled to Italy, Denmark, France, Switzerland, Austria and also briefly through Czechoslovakia, Holland and Belgium whilst en route elsewhere.
They also visited Berlin, which was always an adventure in itself as the Berlin Wall was still standing strong and they had to pass through the military checkpoints and East Germany to get anywhere.
“We had a clearly printed sign in the car at all times saying ‘We demand the presence of a Russian Officer’ whenever we went into East Germany,” says Tim. “Just in case we got stopped by the East German Police, who the GB Forces wouldn’t recognise.”
“Why would you need a Russian?” I asked, curious as to why a Russian would be more co-operative than an East German.
“Well, we weren’t allowed to acknowledge that East Germany existed so we couldn’t speak to the ‘East German’ Police. Demanding a Russian Officer meant that they had to notify the other relevant Allied Nation.”
I looked a bit blank here, realising I was going to have to do a bit of reading into the history of the Berlin wall.
“That meant a British Officer would have to be present as well,” he added, seeing my expression, “as Russia weren’t part of the NATO Status of Force Agreement so we were still in occupation.”
To get to Berlin you had to drive through the wall and down ‘The Corridor’ and to avoid trouble you had to make the journey in no less than two hours and no more than four. If you took less than two hours you would be done for speeding but if you took more than four the GB Military would send out an armed search team on the basis that you may have been ‘captured’ or intercepted. Personally, I thought this all added up to a good reason to not visit Berlin whilst the wall was still up and functioning.
“No, it was exciting!” he says with a grin. “If a little unnerving, standing and waiting for your passport and papers back from a blanked out window; knowing you were being watched and filmed whilst the badly paid guards risked being sent to Afghanistan or worse for trying to swap bits of their uniforms for Western goods like music tapes and pens!”
Not only that, but the whole family was always mightily entertained when the entire motorway traffic was stopped with barriers just so they could drive unhindered onto it at Checkpoint Alpha on the East/West border and then again to get off at Checkpoint Beta on the outskirts of Berlin.
“The Germans never looked too impressed when they were sat waiting in their posh Mercedes,” laughs Sue.
The excitement of Checkpoints and the community life at the Base all played a part in Tim choosing to take further promotions in his job so their stay in Germany was extended from the initial three years to the final seven and a quarter. Had they had their way it would have been a longer stay but the promotion post needed to extend it further was taken by someone else at the last minute. Something that Tim has forever since resented as there was something about living out there that was more magical than living in England.
The German adventure came to an end in August 1992 when Tim received his new posting in Shrewsbury Barracks and we moved back to the UK.
Whilst my family was out in Germany, various relatives and friends would come to visit for the odd week, taking advantage of the free accommodation and good excuse for a holiday. One such visitor was Sue’s brother, John who went to visit in July 1986 with his girlfriend Lisa.
Following his visit, John found out about an opportunity to go to Germany within his company, Farnell UK and, having already seen his older sister happily move abroad without too much upset from their parents, fancied doing the same.
As it was, it took the company too long to organise his trip to Germany and John, impatient, described himself as ‘a donkey with a German carrot’. His boss, on hearing this description, asked about his ‘bloody carrot’ and said John could go to Australia instead. Then John informed everyone his carrot had ‘grown into a giant marrow’.
So it was that John set off for a six week posting in October ‘88, which grew into a three-month stay as he discovered just how much he loved the country. With that in mind John agreed to a two-year transfer to Australia, promising to commit even if it didn’t work out. Farnell agreed and John returned to the UK in December and started making plans to return ‘Down Under’ permanently.
During his time in the UK, John split up from his girlfriend Lisa and thus returned to Australia in April ‘89, single and with just one suitcase. His hi-fi and record collection followed soon after as there was no moving away without life’s essentials!
John lived with his boss, Shaun, for the first year after he moved out there, which was apparently a lot more fun than I thought it sounded. They got on really well and Shaun had just built a new house on a new housing estate so the living was good. There were many late nights, including one of John’s favourites where the two of them were outside in a phone box wearing their pyjamas trying to sort a friend’s computer problem. All was going well until a policeman drove by and then reversed back to find out what on earth was going on!
It was during this first year that John and Lisa got back together ‘remotely’ and Lisa decided to go over for a holiday to see if she liked it in Australia. There were a few things she had to learn quickly, for example, in Australia people eat ice cream very fast; purely because if you don’t it rapidly ends up all down your arm and everywhere else. She learnt that particular lesson the sticky way.
Lisa returned to the UK and promptly announced that she too was moving ‘Down Under’ and six months later she headed back out permanently.
By this time John had moved out of Shaun’s house and into the place next door. He ‘survived’ well for a month on his own in a house with a concrete floor, a sofa bed, his hi-fi and an Esky (which is a portable ice box in English). However, within three hours of Lisa landing, the house gained a television, as there are some things a girl just can’t go without!
The general lifestyle of Australia was so much more laid back and relaxed than that in the UK, John and Lisa happily extended their stay indefinitely past the end of John’s initial two year stint, buying their own house and extending their family with two cats, Bubble and Squeak, and Bonnie the dog.
They lived, and continue to live, on the outskirts of Sydney enjoying the friendly community lifestyle and the good standards of living. “We can’t see the Harbour Bridge from home,” says John, “but I do see it on my way to work every day. It’s very small from there though!”
I asked whether they ever get tired of seeing the Sydney landmarks and if they were as impressive as everyone says.
“I still get a buzz out of seeing The Bridge and the Opera House when we go into the city, and a bit of me still can’t believe I live here.” He pauses and laughs, “But it’s still nothing compared to Leeds city centre!”
I can’t help but laugh along with him at this point. Yorkshire pride is a big thing with my family, and it is very noticeable when speaking to John on the phone that, although he uses Australian words that the rest of us don’t understand, he does it all with a broad Yorkshire accent. In fact, if anything his accent is stronger than anyone else’s, despite being the only one not living in the UK!
When I asked if he missed his old life in Leeds, John said yes, but that didn’t mean he wanted to go back to it. “I love Leeds and it will always be ‘home’ but I wouldn’t change my life out here for anything.”
John and Lisa came back to the UK to get married in April 1994 and then returned to Sydney where they later had their two sons, Aiden and Cameron, now fourteen and eleven.
“It’s great for the kids out here,” John insisted. “There are loads of opportunities for them to get involved in things and everything is really well organised and run.”
As we were talking I was filled with the usual urge to pack up and go over there myself, however there is always one thing at the back of my mind that bothers me; The weather.
“Doesn’t it always being hot bother you?” I ask, being more of a cold weather person myself.
Obviously it doesn’t, else he wouldn’t still be living there. The warm weather was one of the factors that encouraged him to stay in Australia. Although it does have it’s downsides with massive storms resulting in having to ‘bail out’ the garage and the odd freak bout of hail that leaves cars looking distinctly golf ball-like and needing repair.
John traditionally ‘bails out’ the garage once a year each Winter, however this year he found himself emptying it of water twice in one week! He was not best amused, although Aiden and Cameron were happy to discover they had a pair of very bright green frogs sharing their home.
The bush fires that sweep Australia do occasionally come alarmingly close enough to home to mean that they have to hose their house down every day ‘just in case’. That in itself is enough to put me off living there.
“The most annoying thing about bush fires is clearing all the ash out of the pool afterwards!” says John. “It’s a nightmare and takes forever.”
All just part of everyday life ‘Down Under’ it would seem. I think I prefer good old British rain myself.
The friendly attitude of the Australian people was another major factor in John and Lisa’s decision to stay. They were immediately made to feel welcome, although the expected banter regarding Rugby, Cricket and Football is impossible to avoid, even now they’re long-term residents.
“And the one time we [England] beat them [Australia] in both Rugby Union and League in the same weekend I was in the UK, so all the Leeds staff took the mickey out of me ‘cause I was the closest there to an Aussie!”
Even through his complaining I could hear a note of pride in his voice at his honorary ‘Aussie’ status.
“It was great when we won the World Cup though,” he added. “Meant I could do the ribbing for a change.”
John was also very pleased to tell me he had introduced some ‘good old Yorkshire traditions’ to his neighbours. Such as Yorkshire Puddings and gravy, home made – just how they’re meant to be. They have now become a tradition at John and Lisa’s New Years Parties, ‘Yorkshires’ for everyone to go with the barbecue by the pool!
One of the downsides of living in Australia is obviously the distance from the rest of the family who are all settled in the UK. Lisa’s parents visit them fairly regularly but other than that the only other visitor has been Chrystal who went out on her gap year for eight months and stayed with them for Christmas.
John comes back to the UK for the odd week or so with work but the whole family can only afford the trip over once every few years and when they do come they have to be here for a good few weeks to fit everyone in.
“There are definite advantages to only seeing everyone once in a blue moon,” says John. “The kids are spoilt rotten by everyone for a start!!
So whilst there are disadvantages to moving yourself and your family thousands of miles away from home to live overseas, both my parents and my uncle have proved that it also has many more advantages.
Has speaking to them about their lives in foreign parts changed my mind about staying in safe little Wem forever? Maybe. It has definitely made me think about it much more carefully and I am beginning to wonder if there isn’t more to life than Wem after all…