As a ten-year-old boy in 1956 Roy Askham accompanies his mother to the Post Office in Leeds, England.
Post-war England is still struggling to deal with the effects of the Second World War. It’s grey and grimy. Wages are low. Food is poor. On the wall of the Post Office is a brightly-coloured poster offering the delights of a country on the other side of the world.
“Come to sunny Australia, the land of opportunity,” it reads.
“Can we go there?” asks a young Roy.
“No, Roy,” says his mother. “We’re not going there.”
Roy Askham is a man who believes in destiny. He’s just self-published his first children’s book, The Magic Mirror. It’s the tale of the haggard witch Abigail who is given a second chance at her life, to rectify the wrongs she has committed in the past.
It deals with the themes of destiny, of reconciliation with past, of friendship and the trials of youth. And magic. Lots of magic.
In that post office in Leeds in 1956, Roy Askham knows, despite what his mother says, it’s his destiny to come to Australia. He arrives in 1969. His mother, father and brother follow him 18 months later. Roy describes himself as one of the last of the ‘£10 Poms’.
But is Australia really the ‘land of opportunity’ the poster promises?
Roy Askham’s story is not a chronicle of unbridled success. There’s financial struggle, marital break up and unemployment. The challenges of raising foster children. Coming from Leeds to Ballarat is not a fairy tale.
A new country
“I arrived in Melbourne and went into a hostel called Shenton. It was in Hawthorn I think,” says Roy.
“It was somewhere that they put you until you found somewhere, like a boarding house. I had two cabinmates and we soon found a two-bedroom flat in St Kilda. One of us had to sleep on the lounge room floor. It was $21 a week, $7 each!”
Roy Askham says the wage he was earning as a carpenter in the UK when he left was £18 a week. In Australia he earned $75 – twice the wage. He soon learned that framing houses in Australia was not the same job climatically as it was back in England.
“It was hard work and it was hard wood too,” he says, “and the sunburn! I was thinking about what the sun would be like at seven o’clock in the morning.”
He branched out into doing insurance repair work, building up a strong business. However after 10 years he was forced to the floor.
“There was a lot of money owing to me, and I had a big overdraft because it took a while to get paid, sometimes years. I had $40,000 owing to me in the late 70s. I had four kids and two new cars at the time and it just stopped me.”
Roy moved back into the building trade, trying to establish himself in plastering and carpentry once more.
Marriage and a family
“I met my wife three years after I arrived. I met her in January 1973 and I said I was going back to England via the overland route in March of that year, and she said ‘Can I come with you?’”
“I was 26 and she was 19.”
Roy and his prospective partner travelled up through Malaysia (350 miles in a taxi for $7) and Thailand into Calcutta, India and then Pakistan. It cost them $1.50 to cross Pakistan by bus, heading towards Afghanistan and Iran.
“I don’t think you could do that today,” says Roy.
Arriving in England on Easter Sunday, they are forced to sleep in a bus shelter in freezing weather.
“We ended up living and working on a farm back in the north of England, a farm where my father had worked. He and my mother, I had already sponsored them out to Australia, and my brother was here now too,” Roy says.
Returning to Australia, they raise their four children, but it doesn’t work out.
“We split, then we got together again like it was a marriage of convenience, but eventually we parted again and we raised the children – two boys, twin girls – between us.
“I was by myself for a long time.”
A foster family
Eventually Roy Askham remarries. His new wife Heather has an adopted son.
“She had taken the care of a friend’s child, because her friend couldn’t cope. And she raised him until he was 18,” Roy says.
“I had a job delivering insulation at the time, but when the government installation scheme collapsed we found we were struggling. It was really hard to get a job. Eventually I qualified for the pension. Heather was forced onto the unemployment benefits. At 55 it's very hard to get a job, you know? We were a bit lost.
“And we met a friend who had a foster child. And she said to us ‘if you think you can make someone’s life worthwhile, you should apply for this.’”
The couple undergo foster training through Child and Family Services (CAFS). They learn of the problems that foster children sometimes carry with them, their anger and sadness.
They foster one child, then another. Finally they accept responsibility for three girls, hoping to return them home eventually. Each of the girls have their personal struggles to overcome, legacies of their past. Roy says their backgrounds are varied, but the pain of what they have been through sometimes becomes manifest in the same way.
“They do ballroom dancing now; one of them has a black belt in Taekwondo. It can be tiring, but you have to act younger to be with them, which makes you feel younger yourself,” says Roy.
“I’m 70 now, and this is like a new job, in one sense. But it’s more than a job. And it’s worthwhile. We lease a farm out of Ballarat, 800 acres, so there’s freedom. The girls can run around.”
On writing a book at 70
“I read a lot when I was young, and then later I became interested in the spiritual side of things, in reincarnation and spiritual development,” says Roy.
“And in this story, the main character, this old woman discovers she only has a week to live. And she looks at herself in the mirror and seews how decrepit she is, and how her life has led her to this point. And then the mirror starts to talk to her, and tells her she has a second chance. And it’s like that for us, with the children.
“I didn’t write it with the (foster) girls in mind, but when I read it, I realised that it was exactly what happened to the girls.”
Roy Askham said The Magic Mirror took 18 months to write. He’s considering writing a sequel, following the journey of Abigail.
“I think the moral of the book is, ‘Life is not easy. Things are not going to be given to you on a plate. You have to look out for yourself.’