Loreto (‘Larry’) York, 2006, with photo of himself as Mayor of Brunswick in 1972.
My father, Loreto, would have turned 98 today. Sadly, he died in 2009 – but lived a healthy life for 90 years (save for his months of decline).
Loreto Meilak with his mother, Loretta, in Malta, c1936. (My dad changed his name to York in 1947 while in London with the RAF).
He was born in Malta in 1918, joined the Royal Air Force there during the Second World War, and ended up in London with the RAF after the War, where he met and married my mother, a Londoner ‘born within the sound of Bow-Bell’ named Olive Turner.
I was born there in 1951 and was three when my parents migrated to Melbourne, Australia.
My dad in RAF uniform, with me, prior to being demobilized and migrating to Melbourne in 1954.
Apart from a brief stint as a mail sorter in the GPO, my father worked in factories all his working life in Melbourne. Radicalised by the experience of the anti-fascist war, especially by communist and socialist English and Scottish airmen he met while on service in the Middle East and Africa, he followed both the British Labour Party and the Communist Party while in uniform in London. (He was demobbed in 1953).
In Australia, he was shop steward in a couple of factories where he worked in the cosmetics industry and he eventually joined the Australian Labor Party. Back then, the ALP was the mainstream socialist party. (Hard to believe, I know).
A charismatic person who was self-taught (he had only four years of formal education in Malta) and who graduated with distinction from the ‘University of Poverty, War and Struggle’, he spoke several languages and this made him a huge asset to the Bruswick branch of the Labor Party.
As a family we had settled in Brunswick in 1954 and, after a couple of years in several different boarding houses, purchased our own place in Shamrock Street, West Brunswick, in 1956. I was there for nearly 30 years – my parents for about 40.
My father became active in local government politics in the 1960s and was elected to the Brunswick Council. Unlike the other Labor Councillors, he could speak Italian, Maltese, Arabic, some Greek and German and smatterings of other languages that were common in the significant migrant city.
In 1972, he became Mayor of the City of Brunswick – the first Maltese Mayor of an Australian city and the first ‘non-Anglo’ ‘non-Celtic’ Mayor of multicultural Brunswick. I should point out, too, that back then, being Mayor was not a paid position. There was a small allowance to cover costs but my dad had to continue working five days a week in the factory.
As he explains in the excerpt from a lengthy oral history interview I recorded with him in 1989/1990, he was involved in the Vietnam protest demonstrations and regarded himself as ‘progressive’. He felt strongly about Aboriginal issues and supported equal opportunity for all Australians. I have a childhood recollection of him exclaiming after watching a television documentary about Albert Namatjira: “They call this a democracy!” And: “How can there be poverty in a land with such vast natural resources?!”
In Melbourne back then, Pastor Doug Nicholls was the ‘face’ of Aboriginal Australia in the media. (That’s how I remember it, at any rate). He used to come to my school, Northcote High, and speak to us students at morning assemblies. He was quiet, understated, smartly dressed and very eloquent and persuasive. Above all, he was a man of enormous dignity, with no suggestion of victimhood.
The Brunswick Mayoral Ball of 1973
My parents admired him, as did most people, and when in 1973 my dad had to organise the traditional Mayoral Ball, he decided it would be a good opportunity to make a gesture in support of the Aboriginal cause and against racism. He arranged for a group of Indigenous dancers to perform – and he invited Pastor Doug to be special guest of honour, leading the official party into the hall.
As far as we knew at that time, no other Council had invited Aboriginal dancers to such a function. His decision to have Pastor Doug lead the official guests into the Brunswick Town Hall ballroom meant that he had to override the objections of the Town Clerk who, rightly, pointed out that it would breach Protocol (which stipulated that the order of entry into the ballroom by the official guests had to be led by the Governor (if attending), then Parliamentarians, then the RSL (of which my dad was a member), Councillors, etc.)
In the oral history excerpt, my dad is restrained in his description of how he insisted that Pastor Doug lead the official party. He told me at the time, and many times later, how he responded to the Town Clerk’s insistence that Protocol could not be broken, by saying: “I’m the f*&#ing Mayor and if I f*&#ing want Pastor Doug to lead the official f*&#ing party then it will f*&#ing happen!” (I’m told that the ‘f’ word was commonly used by members of the Royal Air Force during the War, and that is no doubt where he learned it). My dad had a theatrical side to his character, and relished re-enacting his response to the Town Clerk, even decades later when in his 80s. (His story-telling often took the form of highly animated re-enactment).
Pastor Doug Nicholls at the Brunswick Mayoral Ball in 1973 – newscuttings from my parents’ scrapbook.
My dad had a big impact on me in terms of awareness of the world, passionate opposition to injustice, interest in ideas, sympathies for socialism and communism and, above all, in terms of his spirit of irreverence and rebelliousness.
I hope you enjoy the oral history excerpt, commemorating, as it does, two of history’s good guys.