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  • Moving Stories: An Intimate History of Four Women across Two Countries
  • Eric Richards (bio)
Alistair Thomson with Phyllis Cave, Gwen Good, Joan Pickett, and Dorothy Wright. Moving Stories: An Intimate History of Four Women across Two Countries. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2011. 344 pp. ISBN 978-0719076466, $36.95.

Moving Stories is an unusual exercise in small-scale collective biography that draws on the lives of four young British women who emigrated to Australia in the 1950s and 60s. Longitudinal studies of everyday life are not easy to construct, since they are not normally self-documenting. The advantage of [End Page 389] migrants is that they are prone to writing home, keeping letters and journals of their dramatic decision to emigrate. They are often talkative about their experiences, especially when recruited by an enthusiastic oral historian. In Moving Stories, the women cooperated with the author with alacrity, and they reveal, in uncommon detail, their intimate responses to the central experience of emigration. Every inch and corner of their lives is explored, most of all their reactions, attitudes, and emotions relating to the new country and their adjustments to the great volitional change to which they had subjected themselves. But most of all, these stories are about the status and value of memory, and this will interest biographers and historians at large.

The intersection of memory and history is crucial to Alistair Thomson, who has been prolific and influential in the recent generation of oral historians. He is a leading proponent of the discipline, and in Moving Stories he extends the scope of his method to explore the essential meaning of the lives of the four chosen women: it becomes an intensive examination of their own perceptions derived from the residues of their own memories—written and oral, cleverly juxtaposed as the framework of the study. It is also a matter of archival retrieval—as Thomson puts it, "The intimate sources of family history and women's lives are often discarded at jumble sales and rubbish tips" (2).

In the decades after 1945, Australia made concerted and expensive efforts to recruit as many British emigrants as possible, designedly to keep Australia both British and "White." It was not always easy to attract enough such immigrants, and eventually, in the late 1940s, Australia diversified its range of migrant recruitment towards west and southeast Europe. Later, by the 1970s, Australia at last ditched the racial components of its immigration program. Meantime, in the period from 1945 to 1970, about 1.5 million Britons were attracted, though many of them returned home. They were attracted by higher living standards and by the extraordinarily generous (indeed, almost free) passage scheme. It was classic "betterment migration," given an extra dimension by the terms of assistance—the highly subsidized passage was conditional on the migrant remaining in Australia for two years. This encouraged many young migrants to adopt a short-term view of their emigration, expecting to return to Britain after the two years had elapsed.

In their fine book The Ten Pound Poms, published in 2005, A. James Hammerton and Alistair Thomson have already captured much of the texture and common experience of these migrants. Ten pounds was the relatively small sum which the individual emigrant contributed towards the passage costs; "Poms" was the roughly humorous nickname attached to them by the receiving Australian population of the time. Thomson's new book complements the first by abstracting the stories of these four young women out of the 1.5 million settlers who arrived from Britain. [End Page 390]

This is therefore a tight collective biography composed of intensely personal accounts of the migrants' experience. Even more particular is the manner in which the principal author—the academic oral historian—emphatically incorporates the four women into the authorship, sharing the credit. This is the women's story, their own constructions of their lives, their own grasping at the meaning of their emigration and particularly its emotional context, at the time and in retrospect, within the shifting tides of recollection. Thomson is engaged with the subtle eddying movements of memory and the way such people deal with the everyday patterns of their recollected life-stories. Novelists are...