Working class life in the hard times

Issue 

A Fantastic Dad and His Romantic Daughter
By Mairi McKenzie
378 pages, $30
Phone (08) 9371 8521

REVIEW BY BARRY HEALY

The fantastic dad of this title, Thomas Wignall, was a leading member of the Communist Party in WA from the 1920s onwards. He was stalwart until his death in 1985, aged 96.

The romantic daughter, Mairi McKenzie, recounts his life and her own upbringing and in the telling paints a vivid picture of rugged working-class life in the hard times of the 1920s, into the Depression and beyond.

The defining feature of their family's existence was the death of McKenzie's mother in 1927 of heart failure resulting from a complication of tuberculosis. Thomas Wignall laboured hard to raise eight children alone and it was a heroic effort.

The eldest two (twins) were ten at the time of their mother's death, the youngest just 15 months.

What emerges in the telling is a remarkable tale of personal courage and devotion from father to children and from the brood towards their dad. There is also a window into another world, where working-class life was graced with close bonds of camaraderie.

The times were indeed tough but community solidarity was strong. Theirs was a family where, to buy shoes for the kids, Dad would borrow a pound from the SP bookie over the road, even though he was never a betting man, and the bookie never complained.

On one occasion, all the kids had mumps but their dad couldn't afford to miss a day from his work as a carpenter for the railways. He told them to just sit in the sun until he got home. The baker took pity on them and gave them a gift of soft rolls to eat.

Could a checkout operator for Brumby's do such a thing for a motherless gang of kids today? To even ask the question measures how far money-grubbing has driven wedges into community solidarity.

At 13, McKenzie left school to become full-time family housekeeper, but it wasn't all struggle. One of her duties was to walk the two-and-a-half miles to the Railway Institute and exchange her dad's books each week.

He was one of the working-class intellectuals that Lenin spoke of as the Bolshevik's constituency and McKenzie followed his example by burrowing deep into the classics of English literature. Her early reading reflects in the quality of the writing here.

The opening section of the book recounts tale after tale of the family's troubles, struggles and triumphs and then opens out into a memoir of Communist Party life as McKenzie experienced it.

Among her experiences she saw firsthand the dirt-poor life of WA wheat-belt farmers trying to survive the Depression, squeezed by banks and the falling grain price. And she went through the tribulations of trying to lead women garment workers in struggle.

McKenzie was educated in how to relate to the proletariat in a manner that sounds quaint, yet inspiring, today. Left sectarianism meant "being too far ahead of the workers, so that you got out of touch with them", she was told.

"Communists were like the hero in Greek mythology, who was strong as long as he never lost touch with his Mother Earth. The Working Class was our Mother Earth."

Romance floods in with the tale of McKenzie's encounter with her Marius, who has been her husband for 45 years. McKenzie's attitudes towards love were formed by her reading of Victor Hugo and Marius fulfilled her dreams.

This charming book is very easy to read and, of course, as a self-published effort could have benefited from a good sub-editor. But its honesty shines off every page and is a memorial to a heroic working-class dad, his adoring family and their revolutionary mates.

From Green Left Weekly, June 21 2006.
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