Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 2, 2023

Up We Grew (2004), by Pamela Bone

I’ve been remiss with this book: Jennifer from Tasmanian Bibliophile at Large very kindly sent me Pamela Bone’s Up We Grew, Stories of Australian Childhoods back in 2019 after I commented on her review.  I should have read it long ago.

Pamela Bone (1940-2008) was a much loved Melbourne journalist who died some years ago now.  Readers admired her because she had a heart, she had integrity and she brought us stories of the wider world that raised our awareness of privilege and disadvantage.  Amongst many awards and honours she was in 2001 inducted into the Victorian Roll of Honour for her work on human rights.

Up We Grew is an exploration of resilience in children, an issue that was clearly bothering Bone as she witnessed the changed interpersonal world of her grandchildren.  Writing nearly 20 years ago in 2004, she was observing the behaviour of children who would in the 2020s become adults, and she was curious about why some children in difficult circumstances are resilient, while others struggle to cope with life.

Her research included interviews with adults reflecting on their childhoods, beginning with her own in the NSW Riverina town of Finley though it’s not an autobiography.  Bone wanted to retain some privacy and to respect the privacy of others.  But enough is revealed for the reader to know that they were poor. They lived in a garage, not a house, because their father was irresponsible with what money he earned.

School was a torment of embarrassment because their poverty was so noticeable to the other children.

There are undoubtedly worse things than having to face the teacher and tell her that yet again, you have not brought the items needed for the sewing class, but at the age of eleven, I could not imagine them.  Half a yard of Cesarine, a packet of crewel needles, and a spool of Silko thread were required.

‘Tell her you’ll bring them next week,’ my mother said. ‘I told her that last week,’ I said.

‘Well, I can’t help it; I’ve got no money till payday.’

I went, like a snail, unwillingly to school. In the doorway of Close’s china shop I sat down and cried. Mrs Todkill would roll her eyes, the other girls in the class would snigger self-righteously.  Oh Pam Bone, they’d say.  Crewel needles, cruel girls. (p. 74)

In the event, the kindly teacher gave her the material, but that didn’t make the shame go away.

Bone interrogates how she transcended this disadvantaged background:

When I was a child I slept in a shed, and wore the summer tunic to school in winter.  I failed my Intermediate Certificate.  Today I live in a nice house in a good suburb, have holidays in Europe and my name on an honour roll in the state parliament.  I give speeches at private schools to which as a child I could never have dreamed of going (suppressing resentful feelings because these private school girls are so very nice and treat me so courteously, and it is not their fault that they were born rich and I wasn’t.) My four daughters have seven degrees between them.  My grandchildren have bedrooms full of toys, computer games and books, and learn piano, tennis, swimming, hockey and ballet.

How did I get from there to here? Is my story almost typical of the generational upward mobility that has taken place in Australia in the last half a century? People are so rich now, compared to then (though inequality is worse). (p.2-3)

Feminism, she writes has been recognised as the biggest social change of the twentieth century. 

I had long assumed it was my generation, the generation of women who forced the changes who had borne the brunt of the changes.  I’m beginning to think it has been the next generation, my children’s generation, who felt the effects most; it was they who had to live in those families in which the women, their mothers, were desperately trying to assert an independent identity and the men, their fathers, felt threatened and bewildered by this revolution which was not of their choosing, and reacted badly to it. (p.167)

I’m not so sure about that… For some, it was more of a problem to deal with the resentment of their own mothers who did not get to have fulfilling careers and independent identities. Some of these mothers were jealous of their daughters’ freedom from child-bearing and their access to education.  They were envious of the confidence and self-respect that comes with earning your own money.

The stories in Up We Grew are not representative, they are anecdotal, but they range across the spectrum. Bone’s adult subjects were the children of migrants including Holocaust survivors; the children of families as poor as hers were; Indigenous children; the children of drunks and drug addicts; and children in care.  She observes courtroom custody battles. Some famous people reveal their childhoods: Michael Leunig, June Factor; some politicians for some of these children.

Most, though not all of them, are stories of poverty and disadvantage, and yet these were not always unhappy childhoods and Bone gives examples of those who did not let their childhoods define them.

The book takes a darker tone towards the end, with a chapter about the Stolen Generations and the complexity of the situation for vulnerable First Nations children.  There is also a sobering chapter about failed parenting. Bone makes the observation that although there’s nothing new about some children growing up in homes of addiction, in the past it was usually a drunken father causing the problem and there was usually one responsible parent — the mother — to provide care and protection. Today, whatever the reasons or excuses might be, some children grow up in homes where both parents are addicted, feckless and irresponsible. Difficult decisions have to be made about who should care for these children.

In the wake of the pandemic, it’s clear that a great many young people in our society are not resilient, and some of the most privileged in our society complained the most.  Pamela Bone doesn’t have a solution for the decline in resilience and neither do I, but it seems to me that it’s a problem that must solved, because individually and collectively, we’ll all be better off if it is.

Author: Pamela Bone
Title: Up We Grew, Stories of Australian Childhoods
Cover design: Kate Mitchell
Publisher: Melbourne University Press, 2004
ISBN: 9780522851182, bk., 248 pages
Source: Gift from Jennifer at Tasmanian Bibliophile at Large, thanks Jennifer!

Image credit: 1950s ad for Cesarine:


  1. Thanks, Lisa. I am glad you had a chance to read it.


  2. Idid not spend my childhood in Australia but knew deprivation first hand as a working class girl of the 50’s in Glasgow. It is the foundation of my politics and interests so will read this book.


    • Yes, Pamela Bone does make the connection between poverty and politics. Even if you have not experienced poverty yourself, if you care that other people have and continue to do so, that influences your political choices. It certainly influences mine.


  3. I love that comment about politics. I grew up in relative affluence but had my eyes opened about social justice by a neighbour who had the courage to be very different to those around her in her activities and politics. Thank God!!


    • Would that there were more of us!


  4. I’ll see if our library here will purchase this, it sounds worth reading.

    As a matter of interest, talking to some primary school teachers here recently, the schools in this town are having to provide lunches for children for the first time, so many kids are coming to school with no food at all. Yet there are suburbs here where the houses are like Hollywood mansions. The gap between the well-off and people who are struggling is becoming worse and worse.


    • I find this whole cost-of-living crisis puzzling. We have a local Facebook group and although I’m not really ‘on’ FB, I am amazed at the number of requests for recommendation for expensive things: renovations, dinners out, catered birthday parties for children and so on, and people giving away barely used items, (sofas, beds, appliances) presumably because they’ve bought new ones. I suspect that people with mortgages or who are on pensions are finding it hard, but a lot of other people are doing just fine. I just hope that the government is targetting the support where it’s really needed


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