MEMOIRS, AUTOBIOGRAPHIES, and personal reflections had never much enticed me until I picked up a book that was lying around at my parents’ house. My mother was an incorrigible reader and always had a book on the coffee table beside her lounge chair. The book was Over the Top with Jim by Murdoch journalist Hugh Lunn. I turned it over and read on the back cover: ‘hilarious,’ ‘don’t read it on public transport,’ ‘a classic in childhood memoir.’ I asked Mum what she thought of it. She gave a shrug and said it was all right. No great vote there, I thought. I was going to put it down but absently flicked through the first chapter. The memoir was about growing up in a less than devout Catholic family. I borrowed the book and began reading. Soon I was hooked. It was true that Lunn’s book was funny – hilarious in parts – but that was not what held my attention. I was on the same track as Lunn’s experiences. More than that: I was riding beside him looking around at a familiar social environment as he told his story. It was an experience in reading that I had rarely had. As amusing as his often facetious account of his childhood was, it was his unwitting social history of the ‘long fifties’ (1945-1962) that gripped me.
Lunn grew up in the suburb of Annerley, just outside of Brisbane city centre. Other than a different suburb in a different capital city and a few years difference in age (he is five years older), my story would be roughly the same. We both grew up in Catholic families which meant our social environment and social prescriptions were fixed at least until the end of school. I think Lunn’s book has been appealing because any Catholic kid of the fifties would at once recognise his experiences and be amused regardless of whether he had kept the faith or abandoned it or was determined to rubbish it to the grave. Kids who weren’t Catholic would recognise what many of us got up to during that time, but would also be intrigued by a glimpse into the mysterious ways of the Catholic Church and its institutions, many of them thinking Lunn had abundantly confirmed their suspicions about its weirdness.
The thought kept on occurring, as I read, that not only could I write a childhood memoir of parallel views and experiences, but that I should write one. My story would be different in one stark aspect. Lunn looks back to his childhood through the eyes of an agnostic liberal journalist. He reads his responses of forty years later back into that time, hilariously sending up the beliefs, customs and rituals of the Church. He does not do it with malice but rather as someone who retains affection for his Catholic childhood and recognises the good intentions of his religious teachers, no matter how silly or absurd it all seems now. And this is the difference.
I would tell my story as someone who has (miraculously) retained his faith and understands the Church’s teaching, its long history, its custom and traditions, and the religious significance of its rituals. I would show how all this hangs together with a compelling cultural, intellectual and religious coherence. That loss of that understanding, if he ever had it, reduces Lunn’s book in the end to the level of the merely funny. Worse, the humour is based on some misapprehensions. Although he seems at times proud of how much he remembers about the Church, he shows himself deplorably ignorant and confused about the faith that he and his family followed during those impressionable childhood years. In a way, he copped out on an analysis of his life and social views to which his humour was leading him.
My story, which would include my life-long best mate Pete, would not strive to amuse people in the first place. My object would be to give an accurate account of the times Pete and I lived through and how we saw it in our different ways – including religious belief and our different churches. I would aim above all to relate how I thought and felt as a Catholic during that distinctive social period. We had some fun times, and there were things about the Church that one can laugh at. But I feel sure that I could produce a picture of the Church and its beliefs that one could regard with confidence and affection. This idea, however, of how I would recall my experiences outgrew the mere idea, changed into an undertaking, and then into a passionate project that continually expanded, making the religious aspect just one side of my life’s story, however important that was.
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Hugh Lunn’s Over the Top with Jim was far from satisfying the interest it had created. I was curious to find out what other Australians wrote about the times in which they grew up. In quick succession, I read Donald Horne’s The Education of Young Donald, Clive James’s Unreliable Memoirs, Thomas Keneally’s Homebush Boy, Barry Humphries’ My Life as Me, Morris West’s A View from the Ridge, and about half of Anne Summers’ Ducks on the Pond. Summers’ Ducks on the Pond is an intriguing self-portrait of the feminist that appears in the media, but it was almost entirely an unreflective justification of her well-known political position. There is no real standing back to consider her life and her views as with Donald Horne. Nor does she attempt to entertain by satirising parts of her upbringing as in the cases of Keneally, James, Humphries, and Lunn. Morris West’s short autobiography fell into the same category. It was about his life as a resentful case against the orthodox Catholic Church, something I had been familiar with through the years. It made tedious reading. Summers’ and West’s books deserve critical scrutiny from a factual and political point of view, but that remains outside my interest here. For my task, they were uninspiring.
Of the other biographies, the most impressive and most enjoyable was Keneally’s Homebush Boy. There were so many details of his adolescent life that I could relate to. I discovered, for example, that in the early 1950s he and his family lived in a street across the railway tracks from my grandparents’ house in the Sydney suburb of Homebush. Homebush and the surrounding suburbs were the location of his autobiographical reflections on his final year at school. As literature, it is one of the best books I have read. It is short, its style economic and deceptively simple, and its mood gently but deeply reflective and self-satirising. He perfectly captures the idealism that motivated most Catholic boys in the 1950s, and how that chivalric idealism led him into some embarrassing, but innocent, situations with those of the ‘opposite sex’. There is a subtle raising of what the loss of that chivalric male idealism means – whether he meant it or not. Unlike Summers and West, he leaves the colour of his well-known political views behind him for the most part. Keneally’s Homebush Boy, however, was of limited influence in what became my undertaking to uncover family and cultural links. The other three books with a stronger influence were Lunn’s, James’s and Horne’s books. Their experiences and their coincidence with mine functioned as a cultural reference as I began writing my story. It was how different they were as kids, how differently they reacted to the same social circumstances, and how they analysed those reactions and circumstances which made such an impression on me and provoked my analysis.
Lunn’s retelling of pretty much the same Catholic school education is different from my experiences because, as I say, he is unconsciously looking through a conflicting ideological prism formed through his adult life. His conscious focus and purpose, on the other hand, are to amuse, and he does that well. In the second half of the book, he does become for a while reflective, particularly about his time with the Christian Brothers. To his credit, he pays tribute to some of the brothers for their strong masculine character and their commitment to the whole education of their male students. He acknowledges that their purpose was to build the boys’ characters as responsible young men, and not just to prepare them for university studies. Despite the tribute, in his efforts to amuse he distorts the education Catholic schools gave their pupils during the long fifties. Because of lack of funds and teaching staff, those classes were overloaded, to put it mildly. In 1956, I was in a class of around one hundred boys that a young Christian Brother was doing his best to control – and teach. In the end, it became too much for that young man who had poured himself into his task. At bottom, it is perhaps not funny to degrade the hard work and selfless commitment of the female religious who presided heroically and almost exclusively over the early school education of Catholic children. Perhaps worse, his lampooning of Catholic religious is set against ideological assumptions – assumptions that not everyone shares by a long shot.
Clive James is also out to amuse in Unreliable Memoirs. He does this in the same style as his popular television programs in the 1980s in which the clipped and sardonic manner of his commentary often with a juxtaposition of uproarious and outrageous imagery is a prominent feature. It is a technique that worked well in his programs. It works less well in writing where it tends to appear overdone and contrived. The difference with Lunn is that he embeds in the humour and the exaggerated but accurate account of the life of a fifties kid much reflection – especially self-reflection – and social satire. There is the occasional gratuitous backhander at ‘patrician’ Sir Robert Menzies and the ‘deadening’ class-driven Menzies era. But he is unsparing in his self-criticism to the point of giving the impression he is more engaged in penitential self-flagellation than describing the active, varied life of a fifties kid.
On occasions, I could not help feeling disgusted or even cringing at what I was reading. Of course, one can admire such honesty. The trouble with being so honest and ruthlessly self-critical is that it might exaggerate the author’s weaknesses – unfairly so. On my second reading of Unreliable Memoirs the picture of an inconsiderate, undisciplined and self-indulged child emerged. On his own account, James was sickeningly cruel to his mother. I suppose that is better than being cruel and never realising it. Did he mean to seem so cruel? Probably not. There is the picture of a boy growing up without the sympathetic supervision of a father – something that I always had. One of the most poignant moments in the book is where all the humour and verbosity fall away. He witnesses his mother’s despair when she receives the news of her husband’s perishing when the plane bringing the POW home from Japan crashes into Manila Bay during a ferocious storm. I went back and read that heart-wrenching passage several times while writing. I can believe witnessing such stark despair must have had a profound influence on James’s life from then on and it broke through to the surface during the writing of his memoir.
One of the reviewers lavishing praise on Unreliable Memoirs warned about reading it on public transport. Uncontrollable bursts of snorting laughter will continually embarrass one. Most reviews shared this response. The judgment was that here is another satisfying serve of vintage Clive James wit and satire. But I feel there is something much darker running underneath the humour acting as relief and distraction. It’s a chaotic world of disconnections, the strands of which James despairs in grabbing hold of to bring some coherence to his inner self, something that also seems to elude him. There is one bad decision and one failure after another. Whether it’s playing marbles, making a billycart or the crucial decision of choosing which high school to go to, failure and disaster loom at every turn. There is no strategy, no antidote and no weapon powerful enough to overcome the inscrutable processes of this doom. And no way of numbing oneself to this despairing realisation. All this is what impressed me about Unreliable Memoirs – and what had me comparing my coherent anchored childhood with that of James’s memory.
The difference was religious belief, but not religious belief in isolation or as an attachment. Being a Catholic is not being a person with the super-added propositions and prescriptions of religious belief – the kind of things referred to in the now much-scorned grey and green Catechisms. I had little idea socially of what being Catholic meant during those childhood years. Of course, I knew that my family was Catholic, and that was different from being ‘non-Catholic’. As kids in the northern suburbs of Sydney, we tagged non-Catholic kids as ‘publics’, but only when conscious there was a difference. It was a vague, abstract term we resorted to in particular circumstances, often yelling it tribal-like from a bus window or from across the road at kids who attended a state school. Otherwise we kids – at least in my experience – mixed without inquiring into the nature of each other’s religious status. Pete’s family, the Allisons, were not Catholic, and I can remember Pete only once bringing up the question of what Catholics believe.
What I was conscious of was living in an extensive system of manners, customs, traditions, principles and behavioural rules at the centre of which was the teaching of the Gospels. It permeated our lives. My mother and father led more by example than by constantly promulgating those rules with the accompanying sanctions. If we did not always fully understand what was right and wrong, or why particular behaviour was expected in a range of social situations, we knew the rules. The most important rule was the rule of charity. Looking back more than sixty years, I see that the core motivation of the nuns and brothers was the law of charity, even in the discipline that was meted out sometimes a little too lavishly. That system of rules, properly understood, was not deadening or suffocating but beneficial, ensuring a due measure of freedom to people in the concrete circumstances. One would have understood then that speaking on a mobile phone at the top of one’s voice in a train carriage during peak hour was selfish and inconsiderate – a limiting of the freedom of others. Equally, letting one’s children run shouting up and down the aisle in a church or cinema was infringing on the pleasure and rights of the adult audience. It was a system that provided certainty. One knew how to act, the appropriate action being as automatic as blindly following one’s appetites or inclinations, as Clive James did so often, sometimes with disgusting or tragic results. There were no loose strands or the paralysing mystification of what it all meant. We had direction; we had goals, we were optimistic, and we had hope.
The system of belief that I have just loosely described is often characterised as the results of the brainwashing of a captive audience that has no means of escape. Clive James, no friend of religion and the Catholic Church, would almost certainly throw that accusation back at me if he had been interested enough to respond. Needless to say, I have an answer to a charge that in most cases harbours much prejudice and question-begging, especially about fundamental philosophical matters. It is beyond my purpose to go into the presuppositions of a philosophical materialist like Clive James. That purpose is to raise the contrast between the way Clive James and I saw more or less the same set of social circumstances, and what that ultimately meant. Perhaps it was unthinking and naïve, but it did not occur to me until well into adulthood that there were such dramatic differences in perception of the same actions and circumstances. I did not see that some actions appearing perverse and obnoxious had their mitigating story and motivations.
If Unreliable Memoirs intrigued me because of the unfolding of striking differences in outlook and reaction to similar childhood experiences, Donald Horne’s The Education of Young Donald was much more the case. It was not only the differences in seeing and analysing a similar social environment. Donald Horne’s family history and childhood could hardly have been more different from mine. As with James, it was a difference that gave me more insight into the social setting in which I was born and raised. My little social platoon, to use Edmund Burke’s expression, was different from the social platoons of Horne and James. I realised we were just some of the social platoons that make up our Australian society.
Horne was born in the south Sydney suburb of Kogarah in 1921 but spent his childhood years in Muswellbrook, a country town close to 150 miles northwest of Sydney. His father was a teacher at the local primary school, which the young Donald attended. His mother had a busy social life organising the tennis club, card and Mahjong parties, sing-a-longs and other such occasions for those of her class. I deliberately choose the word ‘class’ because Horne situates himself and his family, including extended family, in relation to other social groups, most notably Catholics and English migrants. Catholics suffered severely in the comparison, English migrants less so. It is a social and political relation, and he describes it with an entertaining confessional irony. He owns up to intolerance, an intolerance he recognises as having its roots in the English Protestant Ascendancy.
Horne and his class were Anglican, but Anglican conceived politically and socially: ‘Anglicanism was a view of how things should be.’ On his own account, he hadn’t the foggiest idea of what Sunday school was all about. Anglicanism as a religion was beyond his comprehension, his comprehension being that of a precociously gifted and confident primary school child whose object in his spare time was to acquire knowledge and increase his command of the language. He busied himself with ‘collecting new words with more enthusiasm than I collected stamps… I had no doubt that acquiring knowledge was one of the most admirable of human activities.’ Religion simply did not make sense.
The irony in the narration reaches a pitch when he says that his family found talk about politics and religion tedious because ‘we were all agreed that the Catholics were up to no good and that the wowsers were a menace.’ Contempt for those with superior airs – anyone that was ‘stuck-up’ – was natural. In the front ranks of the stuck-up were the English, politicians and people like governors-general. Muswellbrook attitudes reflected his class’s opinion about Catholics:
But it was in our distinction from the Catholics (who made up a fifth of the town) that we members of the ascendancy most clearly characterized ourselves. In the Masonic families, it is doubtful if we considered Catholics to be fully human. My school friends and I believed that the 250-or so boys and girls who went to the convent were different physically from us; their faces were coarser than ours – more like apes. I can still see my childhood image of a Catholic child: flat-nosed, freckled, scowling, barefoot, tough – and as white skinned as a grub (white skin was an evil in a sun-worshipping society)… That the Catholic Church occupied the most commanding of the Muswellbrook Hills was acknowledged by the Masonic families to be evidence of the Catholic ‘pull’. Trust them to get the best position in the town, our parents would say. There’s no doubt about Catholics – they stick.
To the extent that puerile prejudice can often be amusing, this passage amused me – as similar claims about Catholics have done through the years. How can anyone be so nutty in their thinking? Horne makes the point for me. He goes on:
This belief was held despite the fact that there was not one Catholic family of any significant wealth or position in the whole district… Our intolerance had no necessary relation to special cases. One of the priests visited us on some charity work, and we were inclined to consider him a fine man. When I was sitting in the sun at home recovering from bronchitis…some nuns called, and these black figures of superstition spoke quite pleasantly to me. Much more important: Miss Irene Morley, my teacher for four years at school, was a Catholic, yet, after my parents and grandparents, I considered her the most admirable person living.
Of course, ludicrous prejudice becomes more sinister when a society’s dominant political class enshrines it in their agenda and goes over to acting on it. The irony for me here is that I discovered in my research that Muswellbrook has a prominent place in my family history. My (Catholic) Grandfather Wilson was born in Muswellbrook (1875), my Great-Grandparents Wilson lived there, my Great-Great-Grandfather Jones died there (1860), and for a time my Great-Great-Grandmother Jones ran a licensed ‘public house’ there. It’s probable that some of the Jones line still live there – as Catholics. Did Horne’s class view my ancestors as ape-like? Coincidentally, I have some photos of some of those ancestors. I can vouch for it that they bore no more resemblance to apes than those I saw during my childhood issuing from the Anglican church just up the road from St Michael’s parish church, Lane Cove. Indeed, Pete sometimes attended the local Anglican church near ‘Tickles Corner’ on Burns Bay Road, Lane Cove, and I never heard him claim that I looked like an ape. He has called me other uncomplimentary names but never an ape. Indeed, ape-like does not seem to go with a typical freckled Celtic appearance.
Horne, who was nearer to my parents’ generation than to mine, was writing about class prejudice during the 1920s and earlier. Was there the same prejudice in the 1950s? I can honestly say I was not aware of that sort of pervasive anti-Catholic prejudice during my childhood. At least not in Lane Cove or Chatswood, which was the geographical field of my childhood experience. Nor was I aware of it in the media, though it did exist to a certain degree. My father would have spoken about it, had it been pervasive. He didn’t. He spoke much about the political events of the day, but not often in a sectarian way. He was preoccupied with the communist threat. The Lane Cove neighbours my parents were most friendly with – the Allisons and the Dennings – were not Catholic. Mr and Mrs Denning, who lived two doors down in Barwon Road, were English. If the Anglican ascendancy occupied their minds, it was never apparent. Mr Denning was a quietly spoken gentleman from Yorkshire, always friendly and always helpful. Mrs Denning was blunt and outspoken, never hesitating to tick us boys off. But that was because we were boys, and she knew, as everyone knew, including Mr Jagger in Great Expectations, boys were ‘a bad lot.’ Nor did they exhibit any discomfort with the Catholic devotional objects clearly visible around our house. There were no stuck-up airs. Mr and Mrs Denning remained close friends of my parents’ right up until their deaths.
There was an anti-Catholic animus in some sections of society and politics, and my father did talk about this. But it appeared to me isolated. The deep historical prejudice of the English Protestant Ascendancy could not just disappear overnight. There was the famous Campbell incident and the virulent – no, pathological – bigotry expressed in the Rock, but that episode is now more remarkable for its looniness than bigotry. I will come to that in the fourth book of my family history series when I recount one of my father’s funniest stories.
Clive James also speaks of or rather lampoons his brief contact with religion. His first minister of religion was Mr Purvis, a Dickensian character who had a peculiar way of speaking. The interdenominational Sunday school service James visited consisted of expositions of Christian missionary activity after which the kids were treated to an energetic harangue.
Mr Purvis would launch into an attack on beer and Catholicism. He pronounced beer bee-ar… A sure sign of Catholicism’s fundamental evil was that it required the drinking of wine even in church, wine being mee-arly another form of bee-ar. Mr Purvis would then get us to sign the pledge [not to drink] all over again and send us home with a warning not to be kidnapped by nuns… He became famous years later as an anti-Catholic campaigner, warning of attempts by the Vatican to invade Canberra. Once again, he had films to prove it. Nuns were shown scurrying darkly down side streets, while a familiar voice on the soundtrack talked of how the Roman menace loomed ever more nee-ar, and the growing fear that it would soon be hee-ar.
Being more impressed by the minister’s nuttiness than the religious message, James let his religious attendance slip. He evidently thought that his amusement was more comfortably and more profitably had elsewhere. That is until he followed friends, whose family had suffered a tragedy, to ‘Kogarah Presbyterian Church [which] was the big time.’ The religious message again left him cold, but the ‘social value’ of turning up compensated for ‘the waste of time’ of religion.
Perhaps the evidence I offer for the softening in attitudes towards Catholics and the Catholic Church is too scant. Nevertheless, I think James’s outlook and Horne’s account of Muswellbrook attitudes are representative of the different times. By the 1950s, there was a significant change in people’s attitude to religion, mostly meaning Christian belief. People like Clive James thought religion too silly to take seriously. The general population – lowly geared intellectually and artistically – wasn’t too fussed about the doctrinal differences – if there were any interest there in the first place. Non-Catholics, in general, seemed to go no further than being bemused by Catholic ritual and devotional activity. I suspect social differences attached to religious belief were considered more important. At least they were more visible. That was my experience, in any case.
The change in attitude was part of the optimism of the 1950s. It was consistent with the motivation to put the hardships of the Great Depression and World War II behind us and look to the future. People wanted to promote the well-being and secure the welfare of their families. Sectarian friction was a waste of breath and time. Prime Minister Robert Menzies, who towered over the decade, set the standard. He was from a Scottish Presbyterian background, and he called himself a ‘simple Presbyterian’. He had no patience with attempts to bring religious differences, specifically doctrinal difference, into the political arena. It was necessary – and enough – that Christianity be maintained as the indispensable foundation of British culture and its modified Australian form. In holding this view, he followed in the spirit of Edmund Burke, as he did in much of his political thought.
The point that I am making is that Australians in the long fifties had left behind the petty parochial prejudices represented by Muswellbrook. They enjoyed a social cohesiveness and tolerance that had not been seen to that point, and which we seem since then to have been losing. In fact, there is evidence to suggest the seeds of the breakdown in that cohesiveness were sown at the time. Horne and James, similar in vital respects and as representatives of new opinions and perspectives, might have given a glimpse in their childhood dispositions of what lay beyond the decade. Both were precociously talented children, especially when it came to reading and verbal skills. They read an astonishing range and depth of literature which plainly provided the basis for their mature thinking.
I was staggered to read not only the sorts of books Horne read while still in primary school – encyclopaedias to high literature – but the number of books. During the Christmas holidays at the end of primary school (summer 1933/34), he says he read Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop and eight of the sixteen books he received for Christmas! I loved reading, too, but I am almost embarrassed to admit to turning the pages of thousands of comics. There were the stables of Disney, Mel Blanc, Super Heroes and a range of imported British weeklies, given, bought, cadged or swapped. I loved Enid Blyton’s stories, and the boys’ annuals my brother and I received each Christmas, especially the Lion and Tiger Annuals. My favourite Enid Blyton books were far and away the Famous Five series, some of which I would have read several times. My first Famous Five title was Five on a Secret Trail, a birthday present. I remember it was the first time I came across the word ‘tousled.’ George (one of the five) had tousled hair.
I loved gripping stories – adventures, mysteries, above all deeds of derring-do, whether it was war heroes, cowboys, Roman Gladiators or Knights of the Round Table. Bravery, heroism, holding the fort, sticking to the task, never saying die, above all sticking up for the weak, no matter what dastardly deeds the enemy came up with – these were the stories that had me enthralled. Historical events – like Leonidas and his small band of men guarding the pass at Thermopylae against overwhelming odds, the small band of Australian soldiers holding off the Germans outside Tobruk, the early Christians standing up to the mighty Roman empire, preferring to be torn apart by lions than deny their faith – these were the stories that held the book in my hands. These were the stories that had the pages turning.
What were these to Horne’s meticulously compiled ‘eight volumes of Cassells’ Book of Knowledge with their more than 2000 articles and 10,000 photographs and drawings’, and which he systematically read through? They would have been a snort and a sneer. Cassells’ Book of Knowledge was representative of the nature and style of Horne’s childhood reading. It takes an exclusive type of mind to read through an eight-volume set of encyclopaedias. It must. Such an undertaking would never have entered my head. And I never saw the like of it among my fellow pupils, which might not mean much given my intense ways and preoccupations. At home, we had the ten-volume Newnes’ Pictorial Knowledge (1952), nine of which I rescued from the family home when Mum and Dad moved to a retirement village in Waitara, a suburb on the northern fringes of Sydney. It must have been a popular set (of which Enid Blyton was Associate Editor) because I have occasionally seen it in Opportunity Shops through the years. I used to pluck a volume from the small bookcase partially hidden by one of the armchairs in the lounge room. I would then spend some quiet time lying behind the armchair, leafing through and looking at the pictures, pausing now and then to try to read the captions. I was in kindergarten in 1952. The volume with the section on dinosaurs was my favourite. That is the volume (Vol. 2) that is missing. Indeed, I remember Mum threatening us with dire consequences if any of us took a volume to school and never brought it back. I suspect that’s what happened to the lost volume. In those days, the loss of such a book was considerable.
Horne relates that his family, teachers and Muswellbrook acquaintances were impressed with his performance at school. One cannot wonder at this. One of Muswellbrook’s elite even offered to help financially so that young Donald’s intelligence could develop. The overall impression is that Horne was not only clever but possessed a mature understanding: ‘I was encouraged by my parents and my teacher and my extended family at Denbigh to cultivate my cleverness. To be myself was to be clever. As other boys delighted in being good at running, I delighted in being intelligent and quick-witted.’
Sadly, my schoolwork gave no indication that I was clever, although I remember Dad often saying, ‘if you applied yourself, son, you would do a whole lot better.’ Perhaps if I had gone as far as doing my homework instead of spending my time after school running around the neighbourhood with Pete and my brother Michael, I might have given cause for such confidence. I might have also escaped the brothers’ frequent strappings. If there was any doubt about my latent ‘intellectual’ ability, there was no doubt that whatever intellect I possessed could never be described as ‘mature’. Forget about cowboys, billycarts, Tarzan games and treehouses – Five on a Secret Trail up against the Old Curiosity Shop and the eight volumes of Cassell’s Book of Knowledge? I don’t think so.
One should not be surprised Horne talks a great deal about his school education, and not only about his reading and intellectual inclinations. He was mature enough to reflect on the nature of that education and on his own philosophical response to it. Philosophical response in a primary school kid? You wouldn’t believe it. He had no problem recognising the Enlightenment spirit in the school curriculum. He had no trouble feeling the unbounded confidence in human reason and the implicit rejection of religion, which meant that humanity, full of optimism, was always in progressive mode, moving forward, overcoming superstition and irrational custom. There was no doubt the human spirit would eventually overcome all problems – social, political and material. It seems the Whig interpretation of history prevailed in Horne’s family and Muswellbrook’s state primary school.
Horne’s private reading, however, impressed a different view on him. He says, ‘along with the optimism of school history, I taught myself another view of life: of disconnected, discordant, irrational, and unpredictable events, and the possibility of failure.’ This view of man’s chaotic, random existence arose from his reading of British history with its deadly intrigues, murder, usurpation, and depravity, where human cruelty and degradation were just as likely to triumph as virtue and good intention. Horne felt he could not speak directly about his growing cynicism, a subject he appeared to want to talk about. So, he dragged his mother into his thoughts by making a joke about the absurdity of all those people running around in fancy clothes chopping off the heads of their fellow citizens apparently for the stupidest of reasons. ‘If you could make a joke of things,’ he said, ‘everything seemed more comfortable.’
With this brief review of Horne’s reflections on his childhood and family background, we seem to have arrived at the sort of existentialist anxiety Clive James was exhibiting in his childhood memoir. Is it by chance or coincidence that these two bright primary school kids, both voracious readers and experiencing a form of social disconnection, arrived at a cynical materialist view of human existence? I imagine it was natural for them to go on to read and be moved by Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. The difference seems to be that James reached a point of despair and never recovered from it while Horne was prepared to take up the existentialist challenge and make the best of it. The world of their childhood thought was entirely foreign to me. It was like I have been on another planet – or they have.
The games that I played always reflected the assumption that there was something good to be achieved and that good was achievable. Of course, such reflection is the reflection of an adult with a lifetime of study and experience. At the time, it was simply action that seized me, often unthinking precipitous action that got me into much trouble. The presuppositions of the action remained in the shade of my consciousness. Whether it was making a billycart, hunting for cicadas or organising the Barwon Road kids into a club (I had several clubs), there was always a purpose – with an end. I wanted the fastest billycart, the best selection of cicadas, and the collective friendship and social ends of the club. It didn’t matter that my building skills were not nearly the equal of brother Michael’s whose plans and achievements in billycart building were infinitely superior. Or that despite climbing all the trees in nearby Gardenia Avenue, I mostly ended up with a box full of common ‘greengrocers’, the purpose with its end drove me on. There was no disruption to the purpose: for example, pausing to pull the legs off the cicadas for the thrill of it or no particular reason as Horne relates about boys and grasshoppers in Muswellbrook.
My games of Tarzan, the Lone Ranger and Smokey Dawson, as primitive as the action was, always had the purpose of prevailing over adversity, rescuing the weak, and achieving the right end. Bravery, courage, perseverance would prevail over evil people and evil intentions. In all this, the good, in essence immaterial, was the real. It was never doubted and always presumed. I was going to write that my games reflected my reading, but on further reflection, it wasn’t that my games reflected my reading or the other way around. There were essential presuppositions that lay in the world outside my reading and action. Why did I see it that way – even if unconsciously? A brief and partial answer at this stage was that my mother and father, at the most explicit level, set the standard. My father’s character was on full display. My mother was more reserved but in harmony with Dad.
Dad, I remember well in those early years, was full of optimism. That optimism was anchored in principle – and it was infectious. There was much to aim for that was achievable, and we should do our best, as long as we accompanied our dealings with honesty, decency, and fairness. That was how it should be. A man tells the truth, pays his debts, keeps his promises, and protects the weak. One of Dad’s proudest boasts was that during World War II he served on HMAS Sydney II while it was on duty in the Mediterranean. That boast still rings clear in that early misty period of my memory. HMAS Sydney II saw much action during this time, the high point of which was a fierce engagement with two Italian Cruisers, the Bartolomeo Colleoni and the Giovanni Delle Bande Nere. Dad’s account of that battle was all about the courage and determination of the crew, and of the battle shrewdness and valorous seamanship of Sydney II’s famous captain, Captain John Collins. John Collins later became Vice-Admiral and Chief of Staff of the Royal Australian Navy. Later still, he was rewarded with a knighthood, to become Sir John Collins. Dad said that if Captain Collins had still been in command of the Sydney in 1941 when it set sail for the Western Australian coast, it would never have strayed into such a vulnerable position against the German raider. Unfortunately for the entire crew, he was not.
My father radiated an enviable independence of mind, but he had no problem in paying homage and giving obedience to a man of the dignity and the superior seamanship that Captain Collins exhibited. In the order of the world, as he saw it, it was crass and ignorant not to do so. Real dignity, honour, rank and talent had his respect. Sir John Augustine Collins was a life-long hero. Fortunately for me and my brothers and sisters, Dad was transferred from HMAS Sydney II to HMAS Kanimbla before the tragedy. It was appendicitis.
If Julian, Dick, George, Anne and Timmy courageously setting out to frustrate the plans of crooks and cheats with brave and cunning stratagems enthralled me, it was not likely I would be tempted into the paths that Horne and James’s intellect followed. No matter how wide those paths opened before me, I was never tempted. I was never tempted because I never saw them. That evil often prevailed, and kings and queens were sometimes tyrants or sometimes innocent victims on the block said nothing against the good being the real and the necessary object of our endeavours. Courage in the face of disaster in the material world – utter disaster in the case of Gallipoli – was admirable because the quality of courage remained unchanged in the immaterial world of the good. The world of the good was the real world. No, I would not end up reading and admiring Waiting for Godot or be thrilled by the pointless world of Being and Nothingness. I would be led to Austen, Dickens and Waugh in fiction and later to Edmund Burke and the tradition of classical realism in my academic reading. The humanity of Dickens’s world in which good ultimately prevailed despite the deepest human degradation was what drew me on. But if I had to point to one great work of literature in my native language, one that exemplified the spirit of my games as a kid, it is undoubtedly Shakespeare’s King Henry V.
The first formal study of King Henry V came in early secondary school. It was probably the Shakespeare text for my intermediate English exam. I feel sure, however, that I first heard Prince Hal’s great speeches before Hafleur and Agincourt sometime during late primary school, although I cannot place them with surety. I connect them with images of wooden desks, inkwells and the black habit of a Christian Brother at St Pius X CBC Chatswood. Nothing was more inspiring than Henry’s rousing appeal to his troops at the siege of Hafleur on the French coast:
Once more unto the breech, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead!
In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage… (Act III Scene 1)
Here is authentic masculine courage; the contrast of generosity and self-effacement with the irresistible call to a righteous cause; mates no matter what. When Henry and his troops arrived at Agincourt, exhausted and malnourished, they faced a French force that greatly outnumbered them. Chances of victory looked bleak; failure and defeat stared them in the face. There was no backing down from the cause. Henry gave the order to allow those tired of war and battle free pass back to England. The rest were his brothers and as brothers they would fight to the end. Reading the line, ‘We few, we happy few, we band of brothers’, still brings a thrill after all these years.
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for the convoy put into his purse:
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die us.
This day is called the feast of Crispian…
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered, –
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurst they were not here;
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day. (Act IV Scene 3)
I know these passages today cannot withstand the cynicism of many, and I am inclined to think they would not have inspired young Horne and James whose materialist cast of mind would have been an obstacle. The fundamental difference between a materialist and the mind that recognises a transcendent order would inevitably decide how you viewed Prince Hal’s speeches. Nothing surer than that young Horne, later to become a prominent leader of the republican cause in Australia, would have baulked, if not recoiled, at the idea of feeling solidarity with a wall of English bodies. I don’t at all. Out of my British Isles ancestors all arriving by the 1830s, two on the First Fleet in 1788, most were from England: Wiltshire, Lancashire, Middlesex, Essex, Norfolk, Lincolnshire and Huntingdonshire. Astonishingly four of those were from two little villages close by each other in Wiltshire: Semley and Donhead St Mary. My ancestry ranges all over the bottom half of England, as well as Ireland and Scotland.
Why would I, the eighth generation after my first Australian ancestor came, feel substantially different from the descendants of the same family groups that remained in England? After more than two hundred years there are distinct differences between family descendants in Wiltshire and me, as there would be between a Wiltshire family descendant and a Lancashire family descendant, though perhaps not so great. But I am talking about culture and great cultural lines of continuity. Why would I see no conflict between my ancestral feelings – the connection with Great Britain – and my unequivocal feelings of being deeply rooted in Australian soil? More precisely they are feelings rooted in Sydney soil, and even more precisely in the bush and soil of Lane Cove? What follows in my four-book family history series will give an answer to that question.
My purpose in reviewing some well-known Australian childhood memoirs was not only to set up a comparison between my experiences as an Australian with those of others, and to draw conclusions and even lessons from it. It was also to show that any attempt at writing a childhood memoir takes the writer back at least to the immediate ancestors, the ones that most often are in one’s memory – parents and grandparents. Horne draws a colourful picture of his extended family and its influence on his thinking and development. I would find it puzzling that he did not go back further than grandparents and great uncles and aunts if I did not see that his materialist mind created a barrier of prejudice. To go back further would be to establish cultural connections that went against his strong republican feelings. There was no such barrier for me. There was no compromise between my feelings as an Australian and my ancestral links with the British Isles – England, Scotland and Ireland. The result was that the more I began investigating my ancestry, the more of it I found necessary to include a background to my proposed childhood memoir. Indeed, I could no longer see myself without taking into consideration the influence of my ancestry– all those real people that came to life in my research. They had to be an essential part of the explanation of what my family and I were like in the 1950s. After research and investigation, I found I had material for four books. The first book (published) takes me from the arrival of my first ancestors in Australia to 1900, the eve of Federation. The second, from Federation to 1945, is also available. The core objective in all four books is the tracing of cultural continuities and what they meant for my family and me. How did they contribute to making me what and who I am?
My first ancestors in Australia were Frederick Meredith and convict Eleanor Fraser, both on my mother’s side. Frederick Meredith arrived in Sydney Harbour on board the convict transport Scarborough in January 1788 as steward to the ship’s master, John Marshall. Eleanor Fraser started out on the convict transport Prince of Wales but appears to have been transferred to Charlotte during the Fleet’s stopover at Rio de Janeiro. The Scarborough, Prince of Wales and Charlotte were three of the eleven ships of the First Fleet under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip. The First Fleet brought the first European settlers to the continental mass referred to from ancient times as Terra Australis Incognita – Latin for Unknown South Land. The real story, however, of the Wilson family in the nation to be known as Australia begins with James Joseph Wilson. That is where the first book of the series, Prison Hulk to Redemption, begins.
The Wilson Family History Series (See My books page)
Book 1: Prison Hulk to Redemption, 1788-1901
Book 2: War Depression War, 1901-1945
Book 3: Me ‘n’ Pete: 1946-1954, due late 2020
Book 4: Billycarts & Two-Wheelers: 1955-1958, due 2021