An insightful portrait of the transition from childhood to adulthood, Homebush Boy affectionately captures the awkwardness, grace, and all the contradictions of being a teenager.
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About the Author
Thomas Keneally (b. 1935) is an Australian author of fiction, nonfiction, and plays, best known for his novel Schindler's List. Inspired by the true story of Oskar Schindler's courageous rescue of more than one thousand Jews during the Holocaust, the book was adapted into a film directed by Steven Spielberg, which won the 1993 Academy Award for Best Picture. Keneally was included on the Man Booker Prize shortlist three times—for his novels The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Gossip from the Forest, and Confederates—before winning the award for Schindler's List in 1982. Keneally is active in Australian politics and is a founding member of the Australian Republican Movement, a group advocating for the nation to change its governance from a constitutional monarchy to a republic. In 1983 he was named an Officer of the Order of Australia for his achievements.
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By Thomas Keneally
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1995 Serpentine Publishing Company Propriertary, Ltd.
All rights reserved.
Born in Sydney in the southern hemisphere's spring of 1935, after Mussolini had in another unimaginable continent invaded Ethiopia, and while my parents were down from the country town of Kempsey trying their luck in bad economic times, I had been named Michael Thomas by my mother. But my father incorrectly registered me under the name Thomas Michael. At home and in the world my mother and father called me Michael. It suited my nature to have an untouched and unsuspected legal first name in reserve, though two-named possibilities did not tease me at that stage nor need delay us here. For this is not an exhaustive tale of boyhood but of the one reckless, sweet, divinely hectic and subtly hormonal year. That is, in my case, 1952. It seems to outweigh the other years, to be the most succulent and the most dangerous. Its consequences, lightly embarked on, have not to this day ceased to tease, govern and turn on me.
At sixteen, I was in the business of defying gravity in an unlikely place called Homebush. I think it might have been named this because it had once been a tangle of scrub not much more than fifteen miles west of Sydney and encountered by nineteenth-century colonial gentry as they rode west or came up the Parramatta River to their country homes in Strathfield. By 1952 Homebush was a lesser suburb of the remote Commonwealth of Australia in the still existent British Empire.
In 1952 I did not smoke, and abhorred jovial adolescent farting. I seemed even to myself barely to eat. I studied both alone and with a blind friend, Matt Tierney. I worked, ran races and did my best to be everywhere at once – an undiscriminating blob of European yearning.
I shared my aesthetic impulses in particular with a calmly anarchic boy called Mangan, angular, dreamy and stubborn, who lived in grander but not grand Strathfield. He had the goods over all of us and over his suburb: he intended to be a Trappist monk. Mangan had given a name to the axis he and I and a few other conscripted souls formed: the Celestials. I have always thought of us since under that title. We were a gang whose main act of subversion was to pretend we were not where we were.
At night, by the railway line in Homebush, I slept as lightly as the teenage eighteenth-century prodigy of poetry, Thomas Chatterton, whose work I had found in the Mitchell Library in Sydney. He was one of my heroes because he proved you could become immortal by seventeen years of age. At five years, said his biographer, Chatterton ordered a cup to be made with an angel blowing a trumpet, so that it might blow his name throughout the earth. And the angel did a great job, since Chatterton's poetry, much of it in 'bogus Middle English' and supposed to have been written by a medieval priest called Rowley, was hugely praised, even though people objected to the deception. When Chatterton took arsenic in London in 1770, Wordsworth called him 'the Marvellous Boy', and Keats dedicated Endymion to him.
Arise, good youth, for Sacred Phoebus' sake!
I know thine inmost bosom, and I feel
A very brother's yearning for thee steal
Into my own ...
As I slept in the Eastern Australian nights of 1952, in Tennessee Elvis – soon to be discovered – was scowling and thrusting his way towards fame. Rock was imminent. But I went against the age, and Chatterton was my rocker. I too wanted to be a marvellous boy without having to take arsenic. I was a very strange little bugger.
Wafer-thin dreams occupied these nights by the railway embankment between Homebush and Flemington, the Western Line being only thirty yards from and level with my parents' bedroom window in our upstairs flat at No. 7. Sydney's umber electric trains passed east to town, and west to the Blue Mountains and the mulga, the bushweek towns in the great plains, from which came Australia's wealth – wheat, beef, wool. The big 52 locomotives, such as my grandfather had driven, hauled the imports from the port of Sydney into that hinterland we called the bush. Accustomed pulsations from those New South Wales Government Railway's steam engines were barely felt in my Chatterton sleep. The railway line ran through our senses like a river, dragging memory and compartments full of lovers by our windows.
The railway had been the road of high drama for the four of us. My mother, father, little brother Johnny, me. Now having grown angelic and having read modern poetry, I had contempt for it. As I stood at the top of the outside stairs, the embankment ran across my vision like a gag on the imagination. But earlier, as an infant down from the country with my parents, I had been excited to see the traffic of electric and steam trains, had stood on the little castellated balcony of our upstairs flat just to watch.
During the Second World War sentimental Yanks (some of them, of course, Southerners) had been borne down that rail to training camps in the bush. When we waved, they showered us with two-bob coins, used comic books and gum. A silver rain of coin of the Realm and Wrigley's gum falling in Loftus Crescent.
Down the rail, too, went the guarded carriages of Italian POWs. Militia and regulars of Mussolini's Italian Empire. They'd gone to a lot of trouble to prove the Australian 6th Division were supermen by surrendering to them in platoon, company, or battalion lots.
The night my father, Leading Aircraftman Edmund Thomas Keneally, had gone to the Middle East, my pregnant mother and I had come down that line wistfully by electric train afterwards. I heard my mother tell someone later that my father harboured an ambition to move on to Europe during his foreign service in the Middle East (as from our position in the world's far south we dutifully called it). He might go to Ireland on leave and see his own emigrant father's village in north Cork. But the Japanese would soon come to preoccupy Australia's military and rule European service out.
As for us, Homebush was the one option. I can taste the flavour still of that extraordinary, fatherless Tuesday night, the blacked-out city, the special glow of dismal lights within the shuttered carriage, my grief for the warrior's leaving and my triumph in having my mother under my seven-year-old protection.
I woke at sundry times in the next three years feeling the first savage, gasping regret in my life, all to do with my father. At Auntie Kate's at Penrith one weekend, I'd said during an argument with him that I hoped he would be taken prisoner. Indeed his ship came close to being sunk by the Japanese in the Indian Ocean. He and other airmen slept on deck in life jackets as, in the radio hut, call after call from torpedoed vessels came in.
As male of the family, I gave my mother an anxious time. I would not be able to climb out of the lower half of my class. I was frequently incapacitated by asthma, which in those days mothers – not infections, the humid climate, the backyard grasses, the dust mites in households – were blamed for. At five, in Kempsey, I had been admitted to hospital with a severe respiratory seizure which came close to taking my life. Then she would nurse me through pneumonia in 1944, and ended so exhausted the doctor put me in the Children's Hospital so that she could have a night's rest.
But despite these vulnerabilities, she invested me with the proud position of household male. I carried the napkin bag. I walked beside her to Mass. Our alliance was no doubt intensified by the absence of father and spouse. She had a preposterous faith in my survival and that I would succeed at school.
Then, when history had had its way, the railway by our windows delivered the soldiers home. First, a very spruce-looking Lance Corporal Frizzell, yellow from taking Atabrin for malaria. My father was still with a squadron in Egypt, but Laurie Frizzell had had to return only from the closer shores of New Guinea. He carried the rifle with which he'd made the Yellow Peril think twice, and was still gaitered in case he encountered swamps. An immaculate hero just stepped off the electric train. And towards him ran Dulcie Frizzell, a honey-blonde woman. Until that point, I'd thought of her as ancient – twenty-eight years, something like that. But I was astounded by her ardour. When alerted by neighbours she ran up the street and flung herself into Laurie's arms. A phenomenal kiss occurred, far more primal than anything I'd seen at the Vogue Cinema. All by courtesy of the steel river which had washed up Lance Corporal Frizzell.
From observing the kiss, it struck me at ten years that in some ways women were girls for a long time. This was a piece of information I would later temporarily forget when I became a Celestial.
One day in late 1945, we caught more or less the same train which had delivered Lance Corporal Frizzell. It was a case of my mother, myself, and my nearly three-year-old fair-haired brother going to collect my father from the war. Train first, then bus to a great barn of a hall at Bardwell Park. We were there by ten in the morning, the hall packed with young mothers waiting to show husbands the two or three or four-year-old fruit of the pre-embarkation leaves of 1941 or '42. And all the old children like me believed that the war had transformed their fathers to sages and heroes, that there would never be a quarrel with them as in the previous dull days before the old man went off to the cataclysm.
Men arrived from the ship all day, in some sort of order, alphabetical or otherwise, and two thousand reunions had taken place before a jovial middle-aged corporal told us that the Ks were coming, and we were taken out to meet a truck from which Sergeant K and other men jumped, each one with a kitbag and a suitcase, and there were extraordinary caresses and an unfamiliar paternal patting of my cheek. I had a sense of proudly surrendering care of the hearth back to him. Yet I felt odd with him, like many of the children of that era who greeted returning fathers. Later generations would receive this sense of hiatus on the way to adulthood through divorce. My generation got it through the wartime removal of the father. He embraced for the first time my handsome little blond brother, who reassured himself by saying, 'Daddy? Daddy?'
And then of course we all went home by train on the Western Line, the Western Line serving all drama, restoring paternity too.
But these days a Celestial, I would walk miles rather than catch a train. Mangan and I and sightless Matt Tierney, who listened to music with his chin lifted, and the Frawley girls caught the train in to the free Town Hall concerts of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, conducted by a genius named Sir Eugene Goossens. But we would have flown there on the wings of desire if we could have.
I possessed a handy belle dame sans merci named Bernadette Curran, head prefect of Santa Sabina convent school in Strathfield, who sometimes joined us for those afternoon concerts. She was slim, athletic, and had olive, unmarred skin and a forthright manner. Occasionally I crossed her path, and this tale is in part an exorbitant log of these transits of Venus.
My Byronic friend Mangan and I walked rather than rode to school because we had become neo-Gothic children and needed time for reflection on how to deal with our placement in time and the universe.
Mangan was very happy that Trappist monks had come from France and England and settled outside Melbourne, thus making it possible for him to make his way back to the Middle Ages. The Trappists lived in utter silence.
'It'll be nothing but gesturing then, Mangan,' Larkin, a fringe though mocking Celestial, told him. Larkin was one with Mangan and me aesthetically, but he was also a solemnly self-declared agnostic. Even though he had to sit through Religion classes, brief as they might be at our senior level, he had frankly announced his state of mind to his parents. He made up for his heresies by his taste for poetry and history, and both he and Mangan were united in contempt for my own main heresy. Sporting passion. The ideal of the poet-athlete. 'No poet has ever worn shoulder-pads,' Mangan told me.
Those two and Matt had this over me: their relationship to the Western Line was in my eyes the right, southern one, whereas I found myself improperly located on the north. The line's flinty, iron stench marred the dreams of incense. The old and by now clichéd story which I must try to tell as well as possible was this: the line separated me from the better suburb of Strathfield, from the older, more settled, hilly, leafy and genteel streets. As always in these situations, most of what I believed I loved and wanted was on the other side. Teachers and other boys said, 'You live down the other side of the line in Homebush, don't you?' So it was either in the school records or legible in my features. I was one street beyond the municipal pale.
I made up for it by dressing rakishly, as the Romantic poets had. If I could get away with it, and prefects generally could, I wore my blue-and-gold tie loose as a cravat. My grey felt hat was crushed. For Byron never did his hair. The seventeen-year-old prodigy Chatterton's shirt had been unbuttoned when he committed suicide. Percy Bysshe Shelley didn't wear neck ties. Within the limits of the grey serge uniform of St Patrick's Strathfield, I did my best to show people I was an aesthete and a wide-open spirit.
My father, who was a much more dapper person than I, saw through all the dishevelment I strained for. I heard him tell my mother that I was 'flash as bloody paint'. He groaned to see what I did to the school suit he went without beer to pay for. Iworked on jamming the Oxford University Press Edition of the poet-hero-Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins (GMH to me) into my inside breast pocket, where both it and the fabric were forced weirdly out of shape. My mother was half-amused and thought it was other-worldliness, and that gave me hope that other women would too, particularly the Frawley girls, and above all of course Bernadette Curran of Strathfield, for whose sake all the perverse Chattertonian treatment I gave my clothes was designed. I believed Curran in particular needed to be captured by the sight of a suit pocket strained out of shape by the transcendent load it carried, the rectangular force of Hopkins' fierce, eccentric English.
I caught this morning morning's minion, kingdom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air ...
In case the emanations of GMH didn't work on Curran, who was such a level kid, I spent a huge time making my auburn hair seem negligently done, fixing it then into Beethoven-esque licks with a gluey white preparation called Fix-a-Flex. My cowlick thus cemented could stand up against wind and rain, and remained in glued insouciance throughout an afternoon of English, History, Maths, Science, Rugby League practice and a long dawdle home with Matt Tierney, and Mangan the potential Trappist.
I went through all this brutalism of suit and hair not for the sake of a certain meeting, but on the off-chance of encountering the Frawleys and/or Curran in Meredith Street or elsewhere on the way back home. Mangan and I dawdling like a literary school beneath the box trees Strathfield Council lined its streets with; and handsome Matt listening sagely to us, and Larkin the sub-agnostic taking gentle shots at us. My most significant curl glued to the corner of the forehead, complementing Mangan's severely disordered tresses. Rose Frawley, the earthier of the two sisters, was always quick to say she thought Mangan and I were ratbags. But both of us thought that was just the girls' defence and that they all really knew that they were meeting serious presences. So when Rose Frawley asked, 'Haven't you finished reading that bloody book yet, Mick?' I thought it was just her way of dealing with the intensity of the Chattertonian and Hopkins-like splendour of Mangan and me.
Earth, sweet earth, sweet landscape, with leaves throng ...
Gerard Manley Hopkins, Society of Jesus. On his death bed he'd asked that all his poems be destroyed, and I imagined myself in that situation in a large, beeswaxed, cold room you could willingly slip away from into another state, and saying to crowds of Mangan-like peers, 'Burn all my poems, they were vanities.' Then when I had expired as lightly, fragrantly, crisply as biting into an Adora Cream Wafer, my literary executors would say, 'Not on your life. The stuff Mick wrote when he was sixteen, in particular that must live!'
Excerpted from Homebush Boy by Thomas Keneally. Copyright © 1995 Serpentine Publishing Company Propriertary, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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