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By Anthony Bunko
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2014 Anthony Bunko
All rights reserved.
'Australia needs you and you need Australia,' the advertisement in the magazine assured readers. It portrayed a suntanned family lying on Bondi Beach with waves crashing in the background. It promised lots of space, good food, a healthy lifestyle and free tertiary educational opportunities. It was a brand new country where you could be a completely different person in a class-free society.
To Chris Jackman, this exciting lifestyle was a million miles away from the England where he was born and bred. A country that, although still nursing an almighty hangover from winning the 1966 World Cup, was balancing on the edge of upheaval, social decline and the rapid loss of family values.
So in 1967, Chris, an accountant with one of the world's largest professional services firms, Price Waterhouse, who also had a degree from Cambridge under his belt, emigrated with his pregnant wife Grace and their three children, Ian, Ralph and Sonya, to the land of promise as 'Ten-pound Poms'. The aim of this scheme, run by the Australian government at the time, was to attract skilled, educated people from Britain and Canada to their shores: the package offered citizenship and a whole load of incentives, which included sailing an entire family halfway across the world for the grand old sum of 10 English pounds. Employment prospects, housing and a generally more optimistic lifestyle in a land that only 100 years earlier was used as England's penal colony were promised. It was all part of the 'Populate or Perish' policy, which was designed to substantially increase the population of Australia by attracting workers from countries with booming industries (and which, truth be told, was only offered to educated white workers from middle-class backgrounds).
Once in Australia, the Jackman clan quickly settled into life in the leafy middle-class suburb of Wahroonga on Sydney's North Shore, located 20km from Sydney's main business district. Wahroonga, an Aboriginal word meaning 'our home', was first settled in 1822 by Thomas Hyndes, a convict who became a wealthy landowner. In the early days, residents thrived by cutting down the tall trees that grew there and selling on the wood. Later on, the trees were harvested for their fruit instead, and when the railway was built it became a popular place for businessmen to build out-of-town residences with large gardens in the 1920s and 1930s.
The Jackman family's introduction into this new way of life was pretty straightforward, and in sharp contrast with many other British families who had also arrived. Many immigrants were placed in basic hostels and the expected job opportunities were not always readily available. Often they fled back home, escaping 'Pommy bashing' and resentment from Australians for job-stealing. But one statistic at the time claimed that nearly half the families that went back home returned later after reassessing life in England, thus becoming known as the 'Boomerang Poms.'
'My dad is pretty tight-lipped about a lot of things,' Hugh said, 'but I asked him why Australia and he just said that it seemed like a wise decision for the family. He already had three kids with a fourth on the way; I was number five. He was an accountant for Price Waterhouse, and was doing okay, but I think he thought living in London with five kids was going to be a nightmare, so he moved out to Australia. Back then, the country was still a bit of a frontier, not dissimilar to the country we depict in the film Australia, and my parents were drawn to the idea that there was space and opportunity to live there.'
Other than the birth of their fourth child, Zoe, their first year was reasonably uneventful as they adapted to the new environment. Chris, as normal, knuckled down and worked hard, some would say too hard, often not arriving back home from the office until late in the evening. However he enjoyed the work and his employer was more than happy with their conscientious new recruit. He quickly got promoted and was given an office along with his own secretary.
Initially, his wife Grace loved the place with all its new experiences, and she was regarded as a pleasant woman who would go out of her way to help anybody she could (a trait not lost on Hugh to this day). However, before too long, their cosy existence became disrupted. Chris, already a devoted born-again Christian, began to get more serious about his religion. Together with his wife, he had been converted to the faith back in Britain years before while attending a crusade by American evangelist Billy Graham. Years later, he would insist on taking Hugh and the rest of his children along to hear Billy Graham lecture when the religious road show came rolling into Oz with all its glamour and glitz.
'My dad was religious. He was converted by Billy Graham and he used to take me to things like that.' Initially, Hugh found something appealing about those itinerant preachers; maybe their power to spellbind a crowd. 'For two or three years I thought I might want to be a minister – I became spiritual – but ultimately, the Christian religion didn't really click with me; it left too many questions unanswered. I couldn't get past the fact that 95 per cent of people on the planet are going to hell because they are non-Christian, so I went soul-searching later in life, which has given a lot more meaning to my life.'
Meanwhile, his mother Grace gradually fell out of love with the Church and lost her faith along the way. She began to drift into serious bouts of depression, bordering on mental illness. Up to that point, she had always been a creative person, very much a free spirit, but the realisation that she was becoming more and more of a corporate wife living in northern suburbia, plus the added pressure of an over-religious husband and looking after four kids with another one on the way, began to take its toll. She slowly disappeared into her own world, becoming more and more distant to those around her.
Then, on 12 October 1968, Hugh Michael Jackman was born, weighing in at a respectable 9lb 6oz. Most hoped the birth of her new son would be the catalyst that would snap Grace out of her poor state of mind, but in fact it had the opposite effect. She suffered postnatal depression so severely that Hugh had to spend the first 18 months of his life with his Australian godparents, Tim and Deborah Collis-Bird, who lived on the next street along from the Jackman family.
'My mother was not well. She was probably suffering from postpartum depression. It may not have been diagnosed, I'm not sure, but she was going through a tough time. Actually, for the first year of my life, I didn't live at home; I went to live with my godparents.'
It was a strange time for everyone, especially Hugh's brothers and sisters, who were still very young themselves, didn't really understand what was going on with their mother or why their new brother wasn't living with them. Their father, a man of few words at the best of times, found it hard to explain this to them.
Chris only saw his new son on weekends, while Grace hardly saw her baby at all because she spent most of the time in the hospital suffering from a list of symptoms that included depression and fatigue. It was only in his later years that Hugh realised just how much of a nightmare it must have been for his godparents to look after a baby for all that time, to have loved that child, and then be forced to give it up. Hugh, now with two children of his own, really appreciates what his godparents did for him and his family: 'They were amazing people. My dad told me they had a huge impact on my life because they were incredibly loving and caring and calming.'
He regrets that he didn't make more of an effort to get to know his godparents when he had the chance, and to share some of his life with them while growing up. 'When I went back home and for years afterwards, I don't think I ever remembered them or rang them. I just went on my merry little way. And I never called them, never said anything to them, and then my godmother died. I found out she'd followed my career and kept things about me, and had prayed for me every night of her life.'
When he finally did come home to live, things still weren't easy in the Jackman household. There was the darkness surrounding his mother's condition and also the high standards set by his vehemently English father. It was a tough time for all the kids. Growing up, Hugh made lots of friends but many of them often refused to come over to his house, disliking the strictness of his father. Hugh's best mate, Gus Worland, who is today still his closest friend, was one of the few that didn't mind the sternness. He did, however, find it bizarre when Hugh's father would suddenly shout, 'Who's for elevenses?' and then serve up flambéed crêpes Suzettes when all the children really wanted was ice-cream and lemonade.
Aside from his less-than-normal childhood, though, Hugh enjoyed an active life, spending much of his time on the beach, playing, relaxing and exploring the shoreline, although some of his games were quite peculiar. 'I find it kind of scary because I know what I was like when I was a kid. I used to feed my action figures to the squids that were off the bay I lived near – I tore off their arms, stuck them with pins and did other awful things to them.' He's still not sure if there was some deep hidden meaning to his strange behaviour, or if it was just regular boy behaviour.
At home he staged magic shows and dancing competitions for his brothers and sisters. Hugh's siblings weren't sure if it was just youngest-child syndrome or if this was his way of shutting out the reality of what was going on around them. His sister Sonya has described her little brother as determined to get noticed, while his brother Ian said, 'I don't think we were vying for attention, but Hugh was the youngest of five children, so it's only natural he might have felt a need to express himself more loudly than some of the rest of us, perhaps.'
When Hugh was eight, life in the Jackson household took an even worse turn. One morning, his mother kissed him goodbye before he left for school. When he returned home later that day, she was gone. He knew right away something was wrong. When the rest of the family arrived home later that evening, Hugh told his father that he thought his mother had gone back to England. His father went mad and sent him to bed, but later came up to apologise after finding a note from his wife informing them all that she had decided to return home to spend time with her mother, who was very ill. Even with all the arguing and shouting between the couple prior to their mother's departure, the children thought she was just playing a stunt to get back at their dad, and naively believed she would turn up all smiles and they would suddenly become a normal family again. However, Chris now knew that any signs of normality for them all were just a distant memory.
As expected, the family was devastated. The period of misery following his mother going away is forever seared in Hugh's memory. For a long time after his mother had gone, Hugh wouldn't even go into the house alone after school. He would play outside by himself until one of his brothers or sisters came home.
Hugh and his next oldest brother fought like cats and dogs all the time. 'It was survival of the fittest and I was the smallest. My older brother Ralph used to bully me and one day I chucked a chair at him. It smashed and I picked up the bottom of the chair and swung it at him. He was taunting me and I thought, I'm going to have to kill him because if I just knock him out he's gonna wake up and then he's going to kill me.'
Outside the madness of home life, Hugh felt more exposed than ever. Divorce wasn't new to the area. Lots of couples split up, but it was the father who usually left and normally he lived right around the corner and saw the kids on weekends. There was a lot of attention and sympathy given to Hugh and his siblings from concerned people that made him feel like a leper. He hated it as much as he hated benevolent teachers and other parents always staring, pointing or being overly nice.
'I had some very dark periods as a child,' he admitted. 'I wanted Mum to come back, partly because I felt everyone stared at us. I felt like we were abnormal and weird, and I desperately wanted to be normal.'
A year after his mother left, out of the blue she returned, but only for a brief visit. She soon went back to England once again, leaving her children more confused than ever. After about two years she re-married and had a daughter. Hugh thought this would be the last he would see of her in Australia, but when he was twelve, she came back again. For a while his parents tried their best to reconcile. The children were of course over the moon and extremely pleased to be a family again. Hugh finally felt like the hole inside him had been repaired; he was complete. He had prayed every night to be a normal family again and now his prayers had been answered. For the first time in ages, he couldn't wait to tell everyone the great news that the Jackmans were just the same as every other family he knew.
Regretfully, the reconciliation proved short-lived when after only a few weeks Grace upped and left again, this time never to return. It was then the realisation that his mother and father would never be together for good hit home.
'As a kid it's hard to figure out how your parents don't love each other any more,' Hugh has said. Yet he later admitted that only when he was in a relationship that failed did he fully appreciate and understand how it must have felt for his parents. 'Looking back now, my parents were probably not suited to be together, they were completely different in too many ways.'
And he was more disillusioned and angry than ever when his mother left for the last time. It wasn't easy, especially as he was entering his teenage years. He claimed the loss manifested itself in anger and rebellion. 'High school was tough. I was bullied and probably did some bullying myself. I didn't take to authority at all – I was bit of a smart-arse for a while.' The teachers at his all-boys private school took pity on him, but it seemed to have a negative effect because he got into more trouble, rebelling against everything and everyone for a short time. While playing sport, he turned his anger to his advantage: 'Playing rugby when I was young, if I got tackled very hard, I would kind of go into a little white rage, a bit of uncontrolled violence, often getting into trouble or sent from the field to cool down.'
Hugh also started to look for excitement in other more dangerous forms. He and his mates would go to a place in Sydney called Warriewood Blowhole, where they would jump off an 80ft cliff into the water, swim through a cave which led to a blowhole, and then let the waves wash them up onto a mound of mossy rocks. Although thrilling for a young boy, it was also ridiculously dangerous. He didn't realise just how perilous it was until years later, when he returned with his own son and saw the memorials left to all those people who had perished doing the same stunt.
His home situation only made him more determined in everything he did. He wasn't sure if that determination came from being the youngest of five and needing to survive in a household full of kids or from wanting others not to feel sorry for him.
Over time, the anger that burnt deep inside the teenager began to dissipate as Jackman started to draw great strength from his father, who struggled to bring up the clan single-handedly through discipline and hand-me-downs. The respect Hugh has for his father is evident every time he mentions his name. 'The main thing I love about my dad is I've never heard him say a bad word about anybody, including my mum. The temptation must have been huge. I love that quality about him.'
It was apparent Chris had put his entire life on hold for the kids; they came first, second and third in all his thoughts and actions. 'What really amazes me now that I am older and can see things really clearly, is that for 10 years that man did not have a private moment,' he recalled. 'I mean, there's a whole decade there of supreme effort, just this non-stop commitment to his kids. He cooked, cleaned, shopped, got us dressed, got us off to school, and on weekends he'd go to five different sporting games, stay twenty minutes at each one, and race off to the next one because he didn't want any one of us to feel left out. Then this hard-working man got four weeks off every year and took us camping. So there he was with five kids in the tent, one little gas stove, all squashed in together. We kids absolutely loved it, but looking back now, I realise it wasn't a holiday for him.'
Excerpted from Hugh Jackman by Anthony Bunko. Copyright © 2014 Anthony Bunko. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
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