Australian Biography

Thomas Keneally - full interview transcript

Tape of 13

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Could you begin by telling me what kind of a household you were born into?

Ah, my mother and father were kids from Kempsey. They were definitely - in coastal New South Wales - and they were definitely very influenced by the Depression. And at a stage when we were down here, we were renting - they were renting a house at Bronte. And it was from that house that I was born. I was born prematurely. My father, although times were tough, insisted on a private hospital because there was talk of mix-up of babies in the public hospital system. And God knows he may have been better off with some other kid. But that's why - how I was delivered by a famous old patriarchal obstetrician called Dr John Honour and that was in October '35.

And how long did you stay in Sydney?

Not long because all my memories are of Kempsey and Taree and Wauchope that - those three towns that are on neighbouring rivers in New - northern New South Wales. Ah, my grandparents lived in Kempsey and my granny - my father's mother who was a little squirt of a woman ah, with a sort of immigrant um, rocket up her spine. In that she was - had been determined to succeed um, even though she'd been a child of itinerant workers back in, back in Ireland. Ah, she lived in Taree and so we were commuting between these three towns. My father was a postman in Wauchope for a time and then transferred back to Kempsey.

You said the family had been very much affected by the Depression. How?

Well in a number of ways. Um, they were what you'd probably call Lang voting ... Lang Labor voting Rerum Novarum Catholics. Rerum Novarum was a famous social encyclical of Leo the Thirteenth. And it was on social justice. And it talked about the exploitation of workers.

It offered Catholic activists a way out of communism. Ah, a way out of not being communists. Ah, it involved um, you know, a dedication of the church combined with a powerful sense of social justice. And I know my maternal grandfather Mick Coyle, who was an engine driver in Kempsey was horrified by what he saw on the railways during the Depression because of people - men trying to travel on trains illicitly from place to place looking for work. Men riding the rattlers, literally.

The suspension mechanisms or mechanisms that were near the suspension and were under the carriages. Um, a man he was always haunted by was a man who was sitting on his train without his knowing it - on a freight train - and was facing back towards Sydney. And the back of his head collided with a, with a bridge. So the Depression affected us both in terms of the fact that my father couldn't get work for a time, but also - and he was the sort of man who felt very demeaned by not having work, and it was characteristic of Australia then that people did.

Um, and ah, it affected us because of all these stories of horror and want and um, the man whose head was knocked off by the bridge - ah, that my grandfather's locomotive inadvertently put him into contact with. My grandfather also remembered the wife coming up from Sydney to go to the husband who, whose condition was hopeless in the Macleay District Hospital. So the Depression, I suppose in terms of mythology and of true stories out of which certain mythologies grow, um, was very powerful. And my father would never understand my spendthrift profligate ways with money. And indeed with materials. My mother too, extremely provident. Not in a parsimonious sort of way. They were both actually very open-handed people. But they valued every object in their world.

You say that your early memories are of that northern New South Wales district. What are your memories?

Well, the exquisite Macleay River. Um, having a bit of a ride in my grandfather's locomotive too - in the engine room was really something - out over the Hastings River near Newcastle [sic], near Wauchope. Um, memories of my maternal cousins who were two little girls, who my first experience of this - of the gender divide were these. And I noticed that - early that women had great psychological power. I had sort of the normal masculine bully power over them.

It's interesting actually their name was Bulley. B-U-L-L-E-Y. But I could get one of them to go berserk by saying, "Gwennie, there's a tarantula on your back", you know. About the age of three I could get her to do somersaults and get hysterics and so on, and I had all the fun of watching this drama. And um - but she told me that there were special bananas available from the truck of the Chinese market gardener that came round Kempsey. And that they always gave her the banana - when we would get a banana off, each off the Chinese market gardener's truck - and she's [sic] always had a special hole in it.

And I believed this and I could virtually see this special hole that made her banana top rate and special and mysterious, whereas mine was just a plain old banana. And so she beat me in terms of psychological subtlety. And indeed psychological ruthlessness. [laughs] And I've always been fascinated by that side of women. I hope it's not gender stereotyping - but that particular power.

Freud ... Freud would have been thrilled with the images she chose.

[laughs] Yes indeed. That's right. Well, out of the mouths of babes.

And in the house that you were in with your parents as their first child, were there books?

Oh yes, now my mother and father had left school after the primary final, like most of Australia did, after sixth grade. And um, they were - sixth grade then however provided good students with a remarkable degree of literacy. But my mother felt very acutely having been deprived of further education. She felt it very acutely. So there were always books. And indeed years later on some television show they - the commentator asked her, "What would you say to young mothers?" And she said, "Read to your children. A child with a book is never bored".

So I can remember even when I was at my most bored, in the eminently boring Homebush after we moved down from the bush, that if I used, or my brother used, the word 'boredom' she would say, "Don't you have a book?" And indeed I got through many sort of um, potentially ennui-ridden Christmas holidays, with books like - well books that took you into a grander world like - I was particularly attracted by Scott's works. 'Ivanhoe' and, I - oh, 'Lucia di Lammermoor' was one of the favourites when I was an adolescent too.

Um, and ah, um, - or was that called 'Lucy of the Lammermoors'? I think it's got a different name. The opera has a different name than the book. But um, yes she was from a, an early age, from cloth books up, that was an aspect of my mother's um, impact on me. But I was also - had a lot of um, congestive illnesses from an early age. And um, I suffered from asthma very much. And in those days the doctors not having a remedy, blamed the mother. You know, they would say to mothers, "You're being hysterical". And the mothers in those days never said back, "Of course I'm being bloody hysterical, my child is dying for want of breath".

Ah, and so that necessity to spend time on the sidelines away from the other kids, you know, um, gave me a chance to read. Once I started reading about the age of - once I started reading novels around about the age of eight I was gone. I was a sucker for the - not only for the word, not only for reading books, but for the tricks that narrators played. I thought they were the greatest tricks in town.

Going back to Kempsey, when did you start school?

At five um - and another of my memories before beginning school was of course of the presence of Aboriginals in that town, which had a strong impact on me because the - I was always fascinated by the other. Um, there were good reasons why you didn't mix with Aboriginal kids in Kempsey in this sense, that Aboriginal health was appalling then. Um, and yet the lack of contact was a tragedy and was of course based on good old-fashioned Aussie um, Euro supremacy.

But um, that had a big impact upon the imagination. Um, it purchased in the imagination for some reason. And um, generated - ultimately would generate a number of books which dealt either directly or tangentially with the um, with Aboriginal Australia. Even um, in recent books there've been important Aboriginal presences and I'm simply interested in the gulf between Australia as perceived by them and Australia as perceived by us. And the way those two, the closer we get to their cultural outlook, then the closer we get to being Australians. That fascinates me.

I'm not being sentimental in saying that and I can defend it later on. But the - at that stage um, there seemed to be - even though they lived just up the street in Greenhills in Kempsey - there seemed to be an extraordinary cultural void between us and them. And it was made very um, subtly interesting because I don't know if I'd heard this term by the time I was five but the common institution in country towns was the man who had either a black mistress or more commonly preyed on black women - took booze out there and there was a particularly offensive name given to these, to such men - but this created an atmosphere of strangeness in the town.

These people were so remote, but they were so close that some white men made love to them. You know, and um, so I remember being fascinated in an inchoate way by the Aboriginal kids coming down River Street going to, past our gate, going down into the town. Um, now I began school in Kempsey at a um, ah, parish school. And at the night of my first day I suffered what was either - was diagnosed as diphtheria - um, and ended up in Kempsey Hospital. And this was in the early days of immunisation and there were kids all round me with diphtheria.

Many of them had to have the tracheotomy in their throat. I spent a lot of time in an oxygen tent and it was while I was recovering that my father went to Wauchope. So I really - and they would visit me, come up in the train to visit me - and then I began school properly in Wauchope. Again at a little school and indeed the sacristy of the church, the robing place of the church, was the room in which I really began um, my schooling and we were under the care of a young novice nun from Ireland, who in the great drought of the early '40s had us singing these songs about hail glorious Patrick dear saint of our eye, on Erin's green valleys look down in thy love.

Um, and of course there was no relationship between Erin's green valleys and that terrible drought that broke about 1942. Um, beyond the, the windows of the sacristy birds were falling out of the trees with heat exhaustion, but um, you know again like any immigrant group and there were many immigrants in Australia then, or children of immigrants, or grandchildren you brought the iconography of the other place with you and I suppose in my case it manifested itself through these strange hymns about greenness and emeraldness.

Um, we had slates and the first, the first letter - and this is a terrible confession - I learnt to write was an 'I'. Um, and I learnt to write the capital with a great flourish and I filled my slate with capital 'I's. And the young nun said, "Do you think you want to have a go at some other letters?" Anyhow that was a good place to start school properly. But I remember even then there were um, children who came to school barefooted, wearing singlet and brown trousers. Two or three of them riding on a horse with a sugar-bag over the back. And they were generally the children of poor timber getters or poor dairy farmers.

And all along that coast there was great poverty on these small dairy holdings. And that degree of poverty um, was interesting. And I can remember in Wauchope ah, trains stopping outside Wauchope station and the police, the railway police going along and getting fellas out from underneath it. So I saw with my own eyes a little bit of the Depression. And that's the most graphic aspect that I remember. Um, yes. I suppose.

Were there - were there Aboriginal children in the school with you?

Yes there were some in the Kempsey school. I'm not aware of any being in the Wauchope school.

And you mentioned something that I hadn't heard before. Did your mother put the idea that they were a source of infection?

Ah, no it was just - you know my mother as I said - an extraordinary woman who has um - but because I was ill she was scared of cross-infection from anyone. And it was not - she had a very mild - she was a woman of her time but she had a very mild version of the common attitudes towards the people of that time. But she's always been in her advanced years, you know, a reconciliation person and, so she didn't quite have the characteristic bush attitude towards Aboriginals even then at the stage when they had no civil rights and went to - could only sit in certain parts of the cinema.

Um, and could - were not allowed to drink. And the fact they were not allowed to drink - of course drink has been apparently a terrible thing as it is for some of us. But it exposed Aboriginals in town to whatever anyone was willing to sell them, such as rosehip syrup and meths and so on. So.

I suppose what I was after was what you remember as a child absorbing the attitudes from around you and deeply intrigued by this camp of the other...

Yes.

What you were thinking about them, what your thoughts were, if you could remember?

Oh I think I had an impulse one day when I saw three kids go past the um, the gate and one of them had a very bad eye, you know. Well in those days we would get very bad eyes too. The sty was a common schoolyard problem and boils and all the rest of it. And I think - I hope I'm not being revisionist or speaking from hindsight - but I think I was far more fascinated. I wanted I think to play with them. Because children aren't - the fact that your mother says that terrible chest infections - you know you shouldn't play with that particular child. Ah, most children don't even listen to that sort of stuff. [laughs] And ah, so I believe I was more fascinated that fearful.

So you were an only child for quite some years.

Yes.

Um, what did that mean for you in the household? How were you treated?

Well because of being in delicate health I was treated um, ah, very protectively by my mother. Not that I wasn't allowed to go and run round, but my running round - I remember I was extremely allergic to paspalum. I would bloat up if I ran around in paspalum with the other kids. But she let me run around with other kids and these two girl cousins were a big influence upon me.

Um, in our house in Kempsey - our house in Wauchope was near the railway line - and our house in Kempsey was in Sea Street Kempsey and I recently visited it with my mother and it had been flooded. Um, the people who lived there had us in and showed us where the flood waters had come to. And I can remember Sea Street in particular for its intimations of war. Because in the showground, the Kempsey showground, there were many um, militia men camped.

And my father and a cousin of his, a nephew of his who - my father at that stage wasn't a volunteer but he intended to become one - and my - whereas the militia were conscripted and my um, a cousin of his was - sorry a nephew of his was a lieutenant in the Australian Army. And they used to get me, when I was two or three, to go out on the verandah and cry out "chocko" to these militia men returning from the pub or the town. And my father always felt that - chocko as in chocolate soldier - my father said he said he always felt guilty at having used me for that purpose because these were the men who stopped, fought on the Kokoda Trail, these militia men.

And um, I therefore begin to remember the intimations of war. I can particularly remember the fall of Singapore and the impact that had on women in particular. Aunts of mine sitting around one of these large cabinet radios. And um, as for school I rather liked it but it was interrupted by ah, occasional illness.

I cracked the role of Captain Baby Bunting of the Rocking-horse Brigade in the school musical extravaganza at the end of the year. I think this would have been about '41. In any case I'm afraid I got sick and the role went to another kid. And with it my beautiful quasi-military Captain Baby Bunting of the Rocking-horse Brigade costume. So from an early age I was a disappointed thespian I suppose.

Um, I had plenty of friends at Wauchope because my father's brother was there and he had five or six kids. And um, ah, they were good lively wild kids and so I had a fairly good life in Wauchope. I remember it with pleasure.

What was your relationship with your father?

Well it was very - he was a very loving man but um, you know the problems came, any problems came later and they were not quite the predictable problems of the adolescence [sic], adolescent. But yes he was um, he shared my mother's determination that we'd, my brother and I would have an education. Their belief was that doctors and lawyers didn't go out of business during the Depression. And they wanted to ah, buffer their children against the threat of economic downturns by ensuring education.

So my mother and my father both shared that passion. But my father was very indulgent and very funny. When he ultimately died, his coffin was carried out of the church by, or accompanied out of the church by all these grandchildren. And they loved him because he was graphic in storytelling, slightly improper in language, ah, you know, if they primed him with liquor he'd tell them stories about mad people in Kempsey, eccentrics in Kempsey. Such as Chicken Weeks who played in the silent movies, played the piano. And also had a way of stealing chickens by some form of hypnosis, and also used to make-up Kempsey women who came down to go on the job, to put in a session as a prostitute in Sydney.

And ah, he would tell all these improper and improbable stories. The mad horse, the retired um, racehorse that my grandfather had, he was called PD. I would later put him in a book called 'A River Town'. Now PD was like a Romanov duke in exile and he knew that pulling a grocery cart was beneath his attention. And my father was the youngest child in the family and hence the chief conflict between - it was his job to get PD to behave - and the chief conflict between PD and the family ah, was um, went through the line - lay directly with my father.

So he had many stories of horses, bullockies, timber getters, ships that came up into the Macleay because until 1917 there were no um, railways and even so shipping remained an important part of the coastal scenery, and particularly with timber like native cedar coming down from the hinterland. And so he was a good storyteller, a maker of improbable rhymes, rather profane.

Um, he was a splendid footballer apparently, except people used to say of him, he'd come the knuckle. And he did have a disposition towards fieriness. [laughs] And - but we were temperamentally very different. And you know, one is often faced with the problem of dealing with a child who seems to have come from another planet. And um, therefore, as close as we were, the temperamental difference became greater in ah, adolescence than it did in childhood.

How would you characterise that difference?

Well um, I'm getting, I'm getting ahead of myself but...

Because it emerged later.

Yes, ahem.

We'll talk about it later then.

Yes. Yes.

While you were still small, did your father tell you stories then?

Oh yes absolutely. Yes. He was very, very much an affectionate father. Um, and ah, was much liked by everyone. I remember when we left Wauchope someone did a big drawing of him, big public drawing of him, postman's uniform, because he used to go around from house to house and twinkle and flirt and tell stories. And when he was social - there was a strong depression in him, based on the fact that when he was a boy various people made him feel inadequate. Something that often happens in adolescent boys, particularly wild ones.

And so he ah - all that was hidden when he was the social man and the absolute charmer, you know. And it wasn't that he was not an absolute charmer at home, it was more that his truer melancholy came out. Now I've got the melancholy myself, you know, that behind this apparently gregarious um, untroubled exterior I have the same dichotomy as my father. But I think he found it more disabling.

And then the great - when we did ultimately move to Sydney because of the war and because he joined the RAAF the, that loss of the father for two and a half years was probably quite crucial. Both in my relationship to my mother and in the, that lost two and a half years, when the father comes back and you're on the edge of adolescence, you're no longer a little kid, you know, you can't be treated like a little kid. And I think that that lost two and a half years had some impact on our relationship.

Um ... and I was not the only one to experience that. I sometimes thought that maybe we could take a class action against the Commonwealth of Australia. [laughs] But all jokes aside, it was - we were in a small but notable way, amongst the victims of World War II.

How important was religion in the household?

Quite important. Um, the - my father was a very rebellious Catholic. He was a typical Australian larrikin. And yet he practised Catholicism and tried to live up to its nearly impossible um, standards. And um, you know with my mother, she was not a stupidly devout woman but she was a devout woman.

And I could remember scenes such as we were invited - after we came down to Sydney, to Homebush - we were invited to a relative's wedding in Hornsby and the relatives were that terrible class, non-Catholics you know, and we were - my mother talking about which priest she should go to to avoid - to get permission to go because you weren't supposed to do that without the permission of the priest.

So I remember both medicine, because I frequently sick, particularly with asthma for which there was no proper treatment then, and in religion I had a strong sense of there being a patriarchy. It's a term I wouldn't have used then but these were the two castes, the power castes, if you were just a girl down from the bush with a sick child and her husband about to enter the air force. And so they took religion seriously and they believed in um, the major mysteries.

Um, although I remember my father getting very stroppy about confession, because when he was in the Middle East ah, you could - priests would absolve before any conflict or danger. They'd absolve whole regiments of men just like that. And he, I remember him later saying, "Why have we got to go to confession and tell a sky pilot all these sins?" And you know, "I swear all the bloody time and I've got to tell them about that, when during World War II we could just get done, you know because of danger of battle. And we didn't have to say anything".

So he was um, sceptical. What was - remained most notable was this sense of the fair go. Lang was much praised in my household specifically because he wanted to put a moratorium on homelands and of course he was like Gough Whitlam later, sacked by a viceroy. And um, so um, you know there was a bit of republicanism even in the '30s because of the way Sir Philip Game had treated John Lang.

What are your early religious memories?

Oh, ah, the mass, the necessity of going to the mass. Nuns telling you stories about kids who went to mass every day of their life and then skipped it for a picnic and of course were drowned. And went straight to hell. [laughs] Ah, all the heavy stuff. The ritual, the chasuble, the vestments in general, and the inapproachability of the instruments of consecration, the chalice and the pattern and all the pieces of hardware involved in ...

Didn't you like them?

Oh I did. But one was always terrified of them because one was told they were such potent elements. So the question of what happens if the communion waper [sic], wafer sticks to the roof of your mouth, was a huge cosmic question that had to be worked out, you know.

What did happen?

Well you were supposed to ease it off your - the roof of your mouth gently with your, with the point of your tongue, but very gently. And if that didn't work I think you were just to try to moisten your mouth. And if that didn't work you had to, you were left with prayer. But worse still what happened if the host dropped from the priest's hands and was on the floor beside you. You know, this was the body and blood of Christ and so, and it was on the carpet.

So there were all the normal, very well-documented, many Catholic writers have written stories about this. Most recently Frank McCourt perhaps and the fact that on top of the demands of religious um, service there was the awe of the mysteries. Um, it - of course, it puts a drama in your life, a cosmic drama. It makes you think in cosmic terms, that's the - you know, you come from Kempsey, a little dairy town on the north coast, or from Wauchope or from Homebush, a less than savoury, or stimulating suburb on the western line. But you have power over the divine in a sort of way.

The host is put into your mouth and if you were malicious enough you could chew it. And this would be a cosmic profanation of the world order, of the order of theology and cosmology. And so um, ah, I rather relished that, the drama of the church. I think it's one of the reasons I'd ultimately study for it. It was very dramatic.

The two most dramatic things in my young life were the war, and that was very dramatic because when my father was shipped out, the trainload of men sang 'We'll Meet Again'. And my mother said to me, "It's as if they don't know that some of these men won't come back", you know, it seemed to be a celebration. And in any case the war, and it seemed to be a battle against supreme evil to us, and it was Japanese militarism, but of course even um, the ah, attitude of the press was such ... [END OF TAPE]

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