Australia’s Rum Jungle

Alan Moorhead, in his 1952 Rum Jungle — a sort of casual ethnography or serious travelogue — explains the uses and attitudes towards alcohol in his native Australia:

[…] I took it for granted that for all social occasions, at any time of the day or night, beer was the drink. You did not take it with your meals, but before or afterwards and in considerable quantities. Beer was the solace of life and the white man’s true vision of bliss. You drank it, either at home in pint bottles, or standing up in a bar (from which all women were excluded) in thick glass pots. And since beer exercised so potent a spell and was so delectable in every way, it was only natural that all public houses should close at six in the evening and that the sale of all alcoholic liquor be prevented by law until nine o’clock the following morning. On Sunday the pubs were closed altogether. Had men been able to drink at leisure at any time of the day or night there was no saying what they would do; that was the underlying fear.

I learned of the book from a mention in Bill Bryson’s In A Sunburned Country. It wasn’t as exciting a read as the title might suggest — the name comes from a region of northwest Australia where uranium had then recently been discovered and was being mined. Moorehead offers a rather unbelievable story for the cause of name, so I’ll pass on repeating it here.

What I will note is his description of the US Army’s activities in the northern territories during World War II.

The Americans are remembered now for their extraordinary celerity. They went up into the Atherton Tablelands — the massif that rises from the coast behind Cairns — and built camps almost overnight. When they had no bitumen with which to make airfields they tool barrels of molasses from the sugar-cane factories and made runways out of that. With DDT they banished the mosquitoes (which have since returned), and they brought more life to Cairns and Townsville than the local people had seen in many a long day.

If nothing else, Moorehead’s work reveals how, in 1952, the risks of uranium and DDT were unknown and, instead, they represented progress and wealth.