Australian Biography

Thomas Keneally - full interview transcript

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How conscious were you as a small child, when you were still up north, of being Irish?

Oh, um, to the extent that a great number of the nuns were Irish so they gave you their version of history, more in my parents' generation than in mine, but they still told you ah, that in penal times the priests were chased, not ... - C-H-A-S-E-D by dragoons that they told stories from their own remembrance in some cases of the black and tans, who'd be outside the church with their armoured cars yelling abuse to people going in and out of the church.

Ah, and they gave you a particularly Irish version of Australian history in which you were definitely part of it, but you were - also received the news, if not from them, from other people that you were not quite considered fully part of it in those days. Because of the doctrine of papal infallibility which many people chose to read as a civil - giving the Pope civil authority over citizens of dominions and of the United States rather than moral authority - ah, Catholics were still suspected.

And I noticed that in my World War II and World War I - relatives of mine were very motivated as Catholics to show what they're made of. You know, they had no idea at the point of enlistment what, quite what that meant. They had a very naïve version of what it meant. Ah, but that's certainly palpable in Uncle Johnny, my father's eldest brother, in his um, war motivation.

And interestingly my wife's elder brother was in bomber command and a war hero and it was very much his motivation to show a) what Australians were capable of doing - that was a powerful motivation - and b) as a rider to show bigoted people what, that tykes were willing to um, serve also. And so one was aware that although you felt very Australian, not everyone believed you were.

My mother, who went to the same school as I went to for one day before I got ill, tells me that on Empire Day the convent school kids marched to the showground with the Australian flag, and the state school kids marched with the Union Jack. And that this was at that stage of Australian history a distinct symbol of a slightly different definition.

You speak as if being Irish and being Catholic is the same thing to you.

Yes many people of that heritage do tend to, but I think in a way it was because in my upbringing, because of the dominance of Irish clergymen in the Australian church. Now early in Australian history the first priest of course was an Irish political prisoner, a United Irishman, Father Dixon. But apart from him various fairly civilised English Benedictine gentlemen like Ullathorne came to Australia and there was a time when the Benedictines had great power in Australia.

Ullathorne was the man who heard the confessions and gave absolution to the Norfolk Island um, rebellion people in the 1830s I believe. And stood by them while they were hanged. And they were all Irish of course, they, the men who were hanged. Um, the - this perhaps urbane rather Cardinal Newmanesque [sic] kind of English tradition was borne away by the arrival of very ah, hard-headed um, tough, muscular, no doubt sexually repressed Catholic, Irish Catholic tradition with its heavy overlay of intense Manichaean prudery about sexual matters, which has not vanished to this day.

So there's a sense that even in the United States where you had Spanish Catholics, German so on, and here we had Irish and Germans, the occasional Italian family in every town and so on, the Lebanese family. Nonetheless the church was a very Irish institution. And um, in its - doctrinally and in its mental habits and it sensed that we may have been downtrodden back there but we can show our presence here by building a convent on every hill.

There was an element in my maternal grandfather of showing the other side what could be done when you donated to a convent or when you donated to the building of a convent, or the building of a church. Ah, that you may have been despised where you came from but you are not going to be despised here. That sort of race memory stuff was - well I don't know if there is race memory - but that - tales your granny, and particularly your grandfather, told you, tales which were also part of the inheritance of your parents, created an interesting kind of Australianness.

It was a later generation, I think, who became more socially conservative, the generation that 'made it' in society in general. And at the time of the Cold War I think there was a considerable surge of loyalism to the Crown from the Catholic community. But of course I was, began my schooling before that when we were still being told about the evil persecution of priests and the way the Irish were allowed to starve and all that stuff.

The anti-English stuff?

Yes definitely anti-English stuff, which chimed in well with the fact that the Australians were anti-English in their own peculiar way anyhow. And, you know, I realise now that anti, the anti-English passion of Australians can be a sign of um, emotional immaturity. But we didn't see it then that way.

What brought you to Sydney?

I'm not sure of all the details but I think employment and the fact that my father joined the armed forces. I think that's - I've always understand [sic] they are the two major. Because we - all through the war we used to go back to Kempsey and see everyone. And my parents always seemed very emotionally attached to Kempsey. It was from there that the stories came. And it was there that um, they knew who everyone's grandfather was. Um, whereas Sydney was of course, even then - though an immensely smaller city than now - was more anonymous.

Um, it was interesting though because I remember one of our neighbours was a um, fellow who'd been a British Army PT instructor in Singapore. And he and his wife had had servants up there and suddenly they escape on a boat and they're stuck in a little block of flats at Homebush [laughs] - rather a comedown. And that drama of the war was very interesting in Homebush.

I used to like to watch the occasional reunion where some fellow would come back from New Guinea and his skin would be atebrin yellow and he'd have all his gear on - his 303 rifle and his gaiters. He'd look a very heroic figure. And his young fiancée or wife - he'd be coming from Homebush station, no grand, you know, no trucks laid on or anything like that. Men came home from war on the electric train, on the red rattlers. And his wife would burst out of the gate in Loftus Crescent and go running up towards him and there'd be this huge reunion. As good as any reunion in the movies, you know. I,I liked witnessing scenes like that.

And I remember one day ah, Homebush was chosen as the depot where the Australian Lighthorse would be given their horses and take over their armoured cars and tanks. And over the hill at Flemington came seven or eight hundred men on horseback with plumes, walking down amongst these little - um, riding down amongst these little Federation cottages with their lances and their pennants. And it was such a grand and unreal and absurd sight. There were, there was a lot of - I was aware of the drama of war and I didn't fear it as much as, as adults did of course, because I didn't understand what it meant.

Um, my memories of um, of the air raid shelter practises are very strong. And I think I put them in a book recently. I don't believe the book has been published at this moment but ah, again there was no ...

What happened? What happened? What did you have to do?

Well um, the nuns decided with the help of the chief air raid um, warden for Strathfield, that there was a suitable air raid shelter under the high altar of the church. At the back of the church there was a little door and if you opened it and you went in you were under steel-reinforced altar in a space possibly five and a half feet, six feet tall, very dark, very dank, full of old furniture, old benches and so on.

And I hated that place. But we all took our linen bags in there that we had to carry with us in case of Japanese invasion. [INTERRUPTION]

This dark, dank place had a sort of forbidding air to me. And I think to all the little kids who were ...

Let me ask you a question so we get a nice clean lead-in to that. Where did you go for air raid shelter practice?

Well. It was a space under the high altar of St Martha's Church in Strathfield. And the nuns believed that God would not permit the high altar of St Martha's to be hit. And as well as that the space under the high altar had the space that we were to occupy, which was accessed by a little door in the outer wall of the church. It was reinforced to take the weight of the altar. So um, it was an approved air raid, air raid shelter.

Into it we took our bag that every kid in Australia was issued. Our mothers actually made the bag and um, I think a few of the things in it were issued by air raid wardens. What was contained were two halves of a tennis ball to put over your ears in case of detonation to stop your ear-drums being burst, a plug to bite on to prevent biting your tongue, a can of salve and a bandage and a whistle.

And um, we would go into this dark and dreadful place and get a solemn talk to by the nuns and the air raid warden about, you know, the possibility, but it was nothing to be worried about because we'd be safe down here. And thank God it never happened. We would have been totally unprepared. And then to show that we could stay there for a long time, that we were really responsible kids. We were told to put our tennis ball halves over our ears and sing 'Faith of our Fathers'. [sings] "Faith of our Fathers" etcetera. And no, [sings] "Faith of our fathers living still in spite of dungeon soil, dungeon fire and sword". That was the Irish bit. You know, dungeon fire and sword.

And ah, the - there was a morning when my mother who knew an air raid warden, our local butcher, she came all the way up to this little primary school and said, "I'm going to take Michael". The reason I was called Michael is something I haven't mentioned. The story is that my mother wanted me named Michael Thomas after her engine driver father, Mick. She - my father, possibly due to celebration of my birth, got it the wrong way around. Possibly due also to the fact that his father's name was Thomas. But in any - whatever was the cause of the mix-up I was registered as Thomas Michael. But my mother called me Michael and still does - all my life [sic].

And so did everybody else in your childhood, didn't they Tom?

Yes and I began using the name Tom when I began writing because I thought they mightn't know it would be me. Thomas was my true name but everyone knew me as Mick, except my mother, who knew me as definitely Michael. He who is like unto God. It's a, it - goes the translation from Hebrew. I think it was a more hopeful name than a realised one.

And um, so my mother turned up at the air raid shelter and said, "I'm going to take Michael home because there are Japanese planes over Sydney". They were only reconnaissance planes but no one knew that. The ordinary people didn't know that. So I was in the delightful situation of getting off going into the, into the pit. And the other little kids were rather - I felt a bit of a wooz but I was a grateful wooz. And all the way down Homebush Road my mother and I were the only figures on the road and she was looking for Japanese planes. I was just delighted to be away from school.

How old were you when you came to Sydney?

I think I was about six or seven. Seven. And um ...

When did your father go away?

He went away in ah, late '42 or early '43 and he didn't get back till October '45.

So he was with you for a year or two before he went?

Yes that's right. He was coming and going on leave and so on. He was stationed at Deniliquin for a long time and he'd come home for occasional leave. Um, his sister came down from the bush and lived with us. Aunt Annie, my Aunt Annie who was a great character with his verbal felicity and his capacity to tell tales. But she was a very eccentric woman. But she was great company to have around the place.

And my mother's sister Marie, came down from the bush to be a welder at Burwood, at Burwood in Sydney. And so I was in a household of, very much in a household of women at that stage.

And when did your brother arrive?

My brother arrived some months after my father left. Um, and he ah, was thus eight years younger than me and it was um, you know, it was such a time that my mother probably had people wondering was it his. But it is his I can tell. He's got all the same strange eccentricities as my father. Absolutely trademarked eccentricities, which I of course don't have.

Um, and that was tough because the baby was a big baby. Women then, soldiers' wives had an ice chest in the house, no in-house phone, the phone was on the corner, in those days it was never vandalised, thank God. You needed tuppence for the phone if you were going to call some government department. There were no cars. You knew a few important people who had cars.

And so women then were in many ways like soldiers' wives, rather like third world women. You know, I mean they remind me of some of the Eritrean women I've seen who do remarkable things. For example, my mother had ordered a cab for going into labour. She was going to splash out on a cab, which her generation never did except in such emergencies. The cab man got sick on the day she went into labour, so she walked a mile and a bit to the hospital herself. And then that was what that generation was like.

When I see the third world - there were important difference [sic] between us then and what we call the third world, but I think if we go back to our grandparents and then our great grandparents time, they were third world people. And that is why they were able to come to Sydney and catch a wagon to Gilgandra and not die of nostalgia or self-blame. Just get on with living because third world people I notice are not very neurotic. They're not like us.

And I think the past is the third world too. And when I tell young Australians about the life that women led then - soldiers' wives - with one of them always occasionally coming into the kitchen with a telegram and saying Alf's been taken prisoner in North Africa or in Crete. You know you - there was a different attitude. There was no, "Oh let's sue the government instantly for misplacing my husband". It was a far more, in a way, simpler world. And there was genuine, there was a genuine nobility in the working class. I mean the working class get a bad press as being rugby league followers, as being wife beaters and drinkers and so on.

Um, well you know, I didn't see - I certainly saw a certain amount of squalor which I wanted to escape. But what I'm aware of in these women is a kind of nobility. Uncomplaining nobility. And they were not dumb. They understood the politics and they listened to everything that John Curtin said. They thought John Curtin was Christmas, or the sort of women that my mother mixed with. And even so of course the war had its, as I was saying earlier, its element of racism.

Curtin wrote an open letter to the Australian people in 1942 um, which had a slogan attached to it, perhaps by the advertisers, perhaps by him - 'We've always despised them, now let's smash them'. So that was the Australia of my childhood. But I, on reflection, of course at the time I just thought this is the way everyone lives. In America they put on tuxedos and go to the Copacabana in the movies. And everything American is immensely more glamorous than us. But we, we get the job done.

We've got what it takes.

And yes, we have endurance. And that generation had prodigious endurance. But I mean they had a strange over-imaginative kid like me and they were always - what I find remarkable as I'll say later, we'll talk about this later, how tolerant they were.

Now you had had your mother's full attention. Your father had gone away to war and she had been there taking care of this sickly child.

Yes.

And then at the age of eight you got a brother. How did you cope with that? Do you remember his arrival and do you remember the consequences of it for you as the king of the house?

Well I became more the man of the house. I used to - when I say I was a sickly child I did get very sick at various times. But I was also a brat. I used to belong to a gang that went looking for fights with other gangs. It was all very innocent. And we had in our gang a boy who lived next door to us with muscular dystrophy. And he, I remember him with great affection. But if we got in a fight with kids who were beating us up, we would say to the other people, "Go easy with Jimmy Coy because he's going to die when he's thirteen. He's got this muscle thing". And they'd pull up and say, "Are you going to die mate when you're thirteen?" He'd say, "Too right!" [laughs]

And so I was not entirely a sick child and I remember fighting many a fight over comic books, chewing gum and money that sentimental American GIs threw from the train at Homebush. We would run into the street every time a troop train came. Sometimes we would be unlucky. It would be Italian POWs or the Luftwaffe POWs. But sometimes we'd be - crack an American troop train. And they would throw, if you waved to them, they'd throw stuff to you. And, but there'd be a last two bob that two kids would simultaneously go for.

And so I, you know, I wavered between being a wimp and a muscular Australian. I'd already got very strongly through my father's footballing exploits that sport was the way to Australian glory. Um, I'd met, when we were living at Bondi, I can't remember it, or Bronte rather, we'd met the great Eastern Suburbs test player Dave Brown. And I'd been photographed beside a big white lion that Dave Brown had brought back from a tour of England. And so I did pick up - I wanted to be good at sport above all. And I wanted to be the sort of kid who could manage himself. Or at least bluff his way through a confrontation of the "Oh yeah?", "Oh yeah", "Oh yeah", kind.

So how did you deal with the confrontation of the little boy, of a little baby in the house, the brother?

Well I was looking forward to a little brother because I was so much older. And I can remember being very excited. I was being looked after by an aunt when it happened. There must have been some sibling rivalry thing occur, but I was not conscious of it because I was so much older. And I just wanted to bring up this little creature as a model of myself. You know, and teach him how to bat and give him things, you know.

Indeed he was a very different character. He's a strong character. And he was, he had great stubbornness like my father. And so he was a challenge to raise. But since I had to carry the nappy bag all over Sydney, wherever we went, I never felt superfluous. But I think the closeness with my mother was um - had a potent influence on me. But I don't know, it didn't make me a feminist. That was to come later. [laughs]

A long while later.

Yes.

Now, when you came to Sydney, where did you go to school?

We went to - lived in Homebush and we went to the convent school at, or I went to the convent school at Strathfield, which was a mile and a bit perhaps away. And then after I'd progressed to the end of second grade I went to St Pat's Strathfield.

What are your chief memories of that first school that you went to? Do you have any incident or things that you remember from there?

I must apologise because I know all writers have memories of being on the outer because it's the children on the side of the playground who become the dangerous writers. [laughs] And the children in the centre who actually go on and do constructive things with their lives. I um, enjoyed school but I had great problems with ink. I still had great problems with concepts. And I great problems with wheezing and with discharge, which I couldn't deal with as an adult, you know.

A constantly runny nose.

Yes constantly runny nose and um, there is nothing that can evoke the contempt of a smart five year old girl like a continually - who turns in perfect homework - like um, the contempt that she shows for a sort of a mucus leaker. [laughs] "Oh Sister, look what's happened to his page." That sort of thing. But it was - I was not totally unhappy there. Not totally unhappy. But I did feel on the outer. But then every writer says that.

Um, again I remember when Mother Beningus who would have a part in my later life, drew a chalk mark around the urinals and told us that any boy who piddled above that line would be um, inviting the wrath of God and the shame of the Virgin Mary. And so once again even though Australia stood a good chance of um, falling to the Japanese, which would have been - or being bombed by the Japanese at least - which would have been really a cosmic event, we were fixated on this whole thing about, you know, not peeing too high, not having peeing contests. And God, you know, the thunder of God. So we grew up in - the Australians then and Australians of my background were in a doubly cosmic universe.

And when you went on to St Pat's, your high school, your secondary school, what affect did that have on you?

Well again in my primary school years I found it very hard. I think every child has their fuse, you know, when either intelligence kicks in or speech kicks in, and the fact that speech say, or an understanding of Pythagoras' Theorem kicks in at an early stage, is not necessarily a guide to the way the child will ultimately perform, as a great brain of the earth. There are quite brilliant people who, who don't get it until much later and, you know, there are all these stories of prodigies not beginning to speak until they're six years and so on.

So I had a very long fuse, which disappointed by parents. I was conscious of disappointing my parents. They um - and it was not a good feeling. And when I got to sixth grade I really began, found a means to focus on performing well. Obviously things became possible. I didn't spill as much ink as I used to. My nose was under control. I had learnt not to misspell various words. And some concepts were coming to me.

I can remember as a little kid really understanding, really understanding that two and two were four and that there were various other epiphanies, that there really were four. It was not just something you said. That two and two were actually four. And then I can remember the day I understood Pythagoras' Theorem in first year. But again there was the heavy, you know, religious conditioning of the kind that um, Ron Blair so humorously portrays in the ah, 'The Christian Brother[s]', in his play 'The Christian Brother[s]'.

Um, what I found though about the Christian Brothers is this: that they were certainly muscular. They were generally working class, lower middle class blokes themselves. They came from the same sort of pool that much of the police force came from. And they were thumpers, but the whole of society was [sic] thumpers, were thumpers then. Um, and what their social significance was is this: that there was a great possibility with the bitterness that grew out of the Conscription Referendum in 1917 and the whole thing of Catholics being against conscription and many others being for it. And thus Catholics being seen as disloyal.

And there was an Irish working class that stood the risk of becoming an underclass. When I say Irish, Irish descent much of it, but some of it was Irish. And the Christian Brothers went to rough areas of Sydney, like Homebush, which was a hill in those days. And they took ordinary kids. Um, even then the parents found it hard to pay the fees. Um, and they told them that they were to be members of the professions. They had the same working class belief in becoming members of the professions and doctors and so on. And the education was very skilled in terms of preparing for exams. It wasn't as great in creating humanists maybe. But it was very good at exams.

Who were your friends at school?

Um, my - we've still got some hey?

Ahem.

The um - I had a strange and interesting set of friends. I was very lucky, particularly in high school because I liked, as I still do, to kind of run with the jocks and with the intellectuals as well, the great minds as well. And so um, I had a wide range of friends, but my preferred company were, was a very eccentric boy from our suburb who ultimately became for a time a Trappist monk. And who looked very Byronic and used to compose poetry. Um, he would, he appealed to the side of me that wanted to be Wordsworth.

He was a very Wordsworthy [sic] and Coleridge type of figure. And we were both reacting to the plainness of our suburb by pretending to be somewhere else, in the Middle Ages, or in our own version of the Middle Ages. And um, I had um, then a friend who was unsighted, Paddy Downey. And we studied a lot together and we used to go to athletic carnivals. He would run by the sound of Braille print in Nugget shoeboxes. And um ...

You would run ahead of him.

Run beside him yes. And he was the first um, unsighted boy to get the Leaving Certificate, which was considered almost an impossibility. He was a very brave and determined fellow Paddy Downey, and I still see him at school reunions. And um, he laid down a path of amelioration for people who came later, for unsighted people who came later. Because in those days you couldn't get a job with the public service. You could hardly get employment. And Paddy went to university and I wasn't there at that time. But he was very good company.

Why was it you who ran with him sounding the Braille box? Why was it you who was his friend?

Well we lived in the same suburb. It was a mixture of altruism and vanity of the kind that is characteristic of thirteen or fourteen or fifteen year old boys. Um, it was um, definitely had an altruistic streak but it also had a vanity streak because there were various Santa Sabina girls who might notice that Paddy and I were mates. I wanted his ambience because he was a very glamorous figure. So not all is altruism. I think not all is altruism even for Mother Teresa, but certainly not for Michael - Thomas Michael Keneally.

And but, I suppose then I had girlfriends in the sense of girls who went to the local schools. I remember spending a lot of time with a family called the Raffertys - one of whom later became a nun. And we would go in a group, we were just finding our identity in adolescence and we'd go for - as a group into the um, Town Hall for the Sunday afternoon orchestral concerts. And that was a great outing. It allowed a little bit of transcendence and a little bit of muglair-ising and a little bit of sort of protean sexuality. At least in the emanation of those chemicals that we say we now emanate to attract partners.

But it had very banal outcomes in all regards. But um, that was - adolescence was great because I started to get good at sport and play in a couple of school teams and I'd left my respiratory problem... [END OF TAPE]

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