Australian Biography

Thomas Keneally - full interview transcript

Tape of 13

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What about your ambitions as a sportsman? Were you able to emulate your father?

Yes. With the remission of asthma in my adolescence I very much desired to be a member of one of the school's five rugby league teams, to be a member of the athletics team because we were the Yale to Christian Brothers Lewisham's Harvard. And ah, I was able to do that through pure desire. I was a very ordinary runner. And I can remember when a young woman that I was keen on was sitting in the back straight, in a four hundred I was running against Joeys, and I knew I could beat this bloke but I went too early purely because this girl from Santa Sabina was sitting in the back, the back straight.

So I put it all on in the back straight. And then just hoped that my sacrifice of infatuation would hold, hold me up in the bend and in the home straight. And to my horror, not only did the boy from Joeys pass me but our second runner passed me. I ended up third and the Brother said, "Young Keneally how often have I told you not to put in all you've got in the back straight". But I did it for at least infatuation and so, sport was important to me as a means to woo girls. Something that, at which I had no success at all, either as a sportsman or in any other way. And sport was important to me above all as the hero system of Australia.

I've often said that in our Australia we had a sort of dominion set of roles. One was fighting in - at Gallipoli, and in World War I and World War II etcetera. Another was producing fine wool. And the third form of heroism of grandeur, and being grandeur - was sport. Don Bradman, you know, every boy, every little kid knew that Don Bradman used to hit a ball against his water tank. So little boys with bats hitting nondescript balls against nondescript surfaces were simply the commonplace of my childhood.

I was never any good at cricket thought I love it as a, as a sort of mystery. It is a mystery religion more than a sport even though they've spoiled it with sponsorships and advertising and so on. It's still more a mystery sport of the kind that was played by the ancient Aztecs. They had a game that was part of religious observance and cricket always struck me as being very close to religion. But um, in any case sport was the hero system with which I grew up. And in a sense I've never got beyond it.

So my ambitions were dual, to be five eight for Australia and to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Neither of these ambitions have been achieved. But I saw no reason why there could not be the sort of renaissance man international sportsman. And it was a fatuous and sort of innocent expectation that this combination could be achieved. And I've seen it achieved in a few men, but a very few men.

So nonetheless given the importance that was placed on sport in Australia, I wanted to be part of that scene, particularly since I had felt very strongly in my early schooling being marginalised even in the Catholic school. And the whole Catholic school being in turn marginalised, or suspected. And so um, I did feel that very intensely. I grew up with quite an inferiority complex which I began to get over in high school through modest achievements. And through reading, you know, I mean reading is the grand liberator.

And when I did honours English, Brother McGlade, who was a notable Christian Brother, a non-flogging Christian Brother, who had brought his noble soul out to Homebush to teach the great unwashed like me. He introduced those of us who were interested to Mahler's sympathy [sic], ah, symphonies, to um, Shostakovich. Stuff we'd never known existed.

And at the back of the room was a special press of books under lock and key, most of them had been condemned by the Vatican. And they were for the honours English boys. And they included Auden and Eliot and Graham Greene and Virginia Woolf. People - I mean most kids went through school in those days thinking that the novel stopped with Dickens and poetry stopped with Tennyson. And there was no awareness of the modern possibility of writing. And on top of that of course um, Douglas Stewart's 'Ned Kelly' verse play, which showed that it was possible to write poetry in Australia.

And ah, this was a great liberation for me - I mean it gave me ideas above my station. And ah, ideas that never let go of me. Um, and um, so ...

Can you remember when you first thought, when you first thought when you were reading, I could write this way?

Oh yes, well I've - the great writers write so easefully and with such apparent control over their narrative that the first thing any good reader thinks is "I could write this if I had time, if I was desperate enough, one day I will". And that was so with Graham Greene who appealed enormously to me because of that Catholic underlay and that Manichaeism, in that hatred of the flesh, you know. There's no - there's a lot of sex in Graham Greene's novels but none of it's happy. You know, people are dammed. The girl in - the woman in 'The End of the Affair' gets blown up by a German bomb. Everyone gets punished.

And this really appeals to you?

Well it was the idea that it fitted in with Catholic doctrine, um, that everyone got punished for any sexual deviation. But it sort of put, it put an adventure story in the context of Catholic theology, which I found very interesting. And of course he is the most easeful of writers, Graham Greene and you think "I could write this, this is easy", you know. Similarly Evelyn Waugh, very different sort of Catholic from the sort of Catholics we were, but were introduced to him. All in the name of Honours English. We became heretic humanists in the name of honours English. God bless it. But of course I was by then already considering becoming a priest.

But before you got to that stage your interest in literature had been kindled by other experiences. Before honours English, hadn't it? You had thought about writing poetry. And in fact had started writing some poetry.

Yes I wrote terrible knockoffs of eighteenth century narrative poetry and of - particularly I was attracted to Tennyson, who I remember as a sort of maple syrup of verse, great maple syrup. 'Loxley Hall' was a poem which had a big impact on me.

Who was your favourite poet?

Ah, before encountering the moderns it was probably Wordsworth. But on occasion Shelley and on occasion Keats. I loved Coleridge's 'Kubla Khan'. The idea of a bloke - no one in Australia then was high - the idea of a fellow writing a poem while he was high on opium and all these fantastic images like a dream, like a dream landscape in it. I love that. 'Through caverns ... measureless to man'. Yes.

... measureless to man'. And but you were also drawn to a Catholic poet.

Oh well, above all the way I naively thought that running four hundred metres or playing halfback would inevitably give me success with the houris of Santa Sabina Dominican Convent, I also thought that verse would - the common mistake made by bad poets. And I thought that verse had its own almost sacramental power. And I discovered through Brother McGlade a great poet called Gerard Manley Hopkins who had been a Jesuit and a poet.

Now the biggest problem with Catholicism is that it's always been rather against writing. You know it can't wait to ban this book and that book. Writing and free expression carries with it the threat of heresy. It's almost like the old joke about Methodists. "Why do Methodists disapprove of sex? Because it could so easily lead to dancing." And similarly, "Why do Catholics suspect books? Because it could so easily lead to heresy".

And it seemed that Gerard Manley Hopkins had a genuinely sacramental view of the world. An authentically sacramental view of the world. One that made the world not less sensual but somehow more sensual and certainly more dramatic. And with his weird verbal inventiveness. I thought that this was the greatest um, the greatest poet I'd ever come across when I was sixteen and I took Brother Jimmy McGlade's copy of Gerard Manley Hopkins with me and wore it continually in my suit pocket, so that it bulged the coat out.

And I believed that just by it being over my heart it would transmit its power to various young women I wanted to influence, you know into such heady and exploitative hedonism as hand holding. And um, I was very taken with the inventiveness of um, Gerard Manley Hopkins. The fact that he wanted all this glorious poetry destroyed upon his death and asked his executor, who I think was the English poet Bridges, to do it, to destroy this. Um that did raise a certain uneasiness. You know, how horrible the world would be if he had been obeyed and his poetry had been destroyed. And then I wouldn't have anything to wear over my heart.

You know, so I was a weird eccentric kid but I did believe in the power of the word and of the word being made flesh I suppose, which again I suppose came from my temperament as well as my upbringing.

You had this very close friendship with another boy who loved poetry and literature, as you say the one who later became the Trappist monk. In that relationship was there a leader and a led?

Oh yes, I certainly I think wanted to be like him in some regards. Um, but then in his relationship with the wider world I may have been, I'm not sure that I can boast that I was his liaison officer. But he found it hard dealing with the real world of big muscular Brothers who got upset if you were an hour and half late in the morning. And you couldn't, you couldn't tell them, although he would try to tell them, that it because he was composing a rondel.

Ah you know, he was unabashedly not of this world. And indeed to the extent that one of the Brothers, not Jimmy McGlade, when he was quite a senior boy, had him up on the dais by the blackboard where he could be easily shaken out, or even by more muscular means, distracted from his fantasies.

What happened to him?

Well he ultimately trained to be a Trappist and then he left that and I believe he became an expert in foreign affairs on Japan and married a Japanese woman. That's the last I've [sic] heard.

Now what did your parents make of this boy who was emerging as a, as a would-be writer, poet, football hero ...

Delicate soul, etcetera, etcetera. Um, I think they could see that there was an innocence, a gullibility, a naivety there that could be dangerous. And they would have hoped that going to university would have - and meeting good looking heretics would sort of make me, give me the worldliness that I needed. Um, and ah, they - my mother was very proud of me. My old man didn't know quite what to make of me. Or, or me him. We were not hostile to each other but here was this weird kid who wanted to talk all through dinner about sprung rhythm.

Um, and as one of my mates wrote when they gave me - I was so famous for being a fancier of Gerard Manley Hopkins that they gave me a birthday present - my friends including Paddy Downey, of Gerard Manley Hopkins. And wrote in it to the Professor of Hopkinsean Idiosyncrasy. [laughs] So you know um - but my father and mother confidently expected that I'd be going to university and um, my mother was increasingly proud of me, which was a nice feeling, because of my um, gradually increasing academic attainments.

My little brother was extremely precocious intellectually and he was um, always dux of his class from a very young age. But I had looked to about the age of eleven to be a mucus and ink strewing write-off and I think they were pleased I came good. [laughs] And I loved world history. I think that what happened there was important - and later - was important in this regard that through the church and through experiences like honours English I thought of Australia as being in the world and not apart from it.

The universal church where the priest had the same office in Tasmania has he did in Nova Scotia or in Belgium, that idea was appealing and I suppose gave a sense of the world. My father's adventures in World War II gave a sense of the world too. When he - that the world was very big. And then the - encountering all this literature from Gerard Manley Hopkins to DH Lawrence to Norman Douglas to TS Eliot, that gave one a sense of a big world too.

And I was excited by the big world because although everyone had a job in Menzies' Australia and although the Prime Minister of my day, John Howard ,seems to think the '50s were the greatest time out, they were a time of I think considerable stagnation and were a time when we were struggling, as we still are, to decide to what extent we're our own people, our own particular community and what extent we're not. We belong to other people.

And I found both literature and the church very dramatic presences in the world of the 1950s. And I've met many people, not only here, who've said that um, when they were, that when they read Gerard Manley Hopkins they wanted - and other people like GK Chesterton - they developed a subtle longing to be a Catholic. And the - so there was, the church was one of the more dramatic elements in Menzies' Australia. And then of course belief in the Cold War set in and um, in the peril of Russia, and there was peril from Russia and so on.

So how were you imagining your future? This boy with this expanding universe that he was experiencing in his head in high school, what - how did you see your place in it?

I thought I'd definitely be a writer, whatever I did. And I was very interested in the priesthood. In every school you were, in every class you were told you know the, we turn out doctors and judges and lawyers, and we've just - the Knights of the Southern Cross have just captured the Department of Agriculture so you can get a job there, but of course the biggest thing is those boys who go to be Christian Brothers or go to be priests, you know. And ...

What drew you to it?

The mystery. The possibility of being a pastor. The, sort of the theological subtlety of the church, which is prodigious you know, often to the peril of its members and of other innocent bystanders. And the rituals, the rituals. The arcane language of Latin. The spectacular nature of high mass. I couldn't understand why they didn't have a high mass every morning because it was so theatrical and dynamite. The music. I loved playing chant, you know, singing, playing chant.

And um, so I saw myself as a celibate male and the celibacy would be kind of easy, or so it seemed at that stage. I'd had no success with women anyhow, if sex is what you call success of course. It's a very sexist way of looking at it.

Had you tried very hard?

I don't think I knew what was involved. I think that the young of the late 20th century and the early 21st, when they're looking back on us, they will never by - go wrong by overstating our sexual naivety. And I think my sexuality was heavily repressed by the church, by the, you know, the design of the mortal sins. I was very attracted to women but I'd sublimated - for the purposes of becoming a seminarian I'd probably sublimated it into something, something mystical and chivalrous.

If you look back to the golden age of the church and look at the code of chivalry, the code of chivalry looked pretty good to me, you know. It looked like a decent substitute for marriage because, you know, you look around your suburb and marriage didn't seem a very glamorous thing. The tired women coming home with their string bags full of canned food and butter, it didn't seem such a great reward for living your life. And so um, on top of that I was heavily influenced by the church's Manichaeism.

There was a book I read about my last year of high school called 'Brighton Rock' in which there's a gangster called Pinky in Brighton. It's a great novel. And he has a disgust for the physical. He has this strange Manichaean - Mani was a man, a heretic who said that the world was divided into spirit, which was good, there was a dualism and the flesh, which was absolutely driven by principles of evil. And ah, therefore was a duality on earth. And it ...

That idea appealed to you?

That idea was very much in um, the Jansenism of the Catholic church, which is still there. Still worries about, you know, minute matters that should be beneath the regard of great mystics. And it um, it showed that there was something disgusting about the flesh, you know. And that was very common in Catholicism. I think it's St Anselm who says if ever you're attracted to a woman, think of her after she's dead. And then he gives a graphic description of what she'll be like. You know ...

Rotting.

Yeah. And you know, just think of that and then you'll take a cold shower and you'll be right. So um, yes there was something in my - both my naivety and my sexual naivety. But there were also good things went into the intention to become a priest. There were also good things. The idea of the priesthood that was cast to us was not the idea of a fat and comfortable bloke living in a sterile big brick house, driving a Dodge and playing golf every Monday. It was very much the Irish clergy whom de Tocqueville praised who lived in a ordinary house and shared things with their people. It was very much Karl Malden in 'On The Waterfront'. It was um, very much the priest who was the leader of the community in Ireland who ...

The engaged priest. The activist priest.

Yes that's right. Activist priest very much. And of course, the - I suppose in our day Frank Brennan, the great advocate of conciliation and of um, and of proper treatment for refugees, he is a model of the activist priest. And it's hard for me to say that because this relates to my childhood. The Jesuits only educated the people who'd already succeeded. Whereas the Christian Brothers educated the great unwashed and that's why I've got a weakness for the - or at least flogged the working class up an economic layer or two.

Now you remember the floggings at school. Were you ever flogged?

Oh I think everyone was. I, but as I said, there were some Brothers who never did it. But it was a consistent - I mean this was a period in which fathers routinely used the razor strap on boys and girls for their own good. This was um, a muscular period and there certainly some of the Brothers were muscular to - some obviously to a fault.

And of course the Christian Brothers have now - we've become very conscious of the fact that they were involved in sexual abuse. Did you ever observe any of that?

I had one incident where a Brother would take his favourites on his knee for a time. It was quite innocent, well I mean, I didn't see anything that was grievously wrong but I, I think me and the boys around me felt icky about it. You know, they felt "Thank God I'm not as bright as he is so I don't have to sit on his lap". And that happened only occasionally but it did happen. And that was the only sign I saw of it.

In the 1950s of course and late 1940s there was an extraordinary sectarian newspaper called The Rock published in Sydney. And it was full of stories about pregnant nuns, um, priests running a seraglio in the local convent and of the um, violation of boys. And it was - I mean, it didn't know that it was actually right in a few instances. The idea of the tunnels between the presbytery and the convent, there's no such thing, but maybe, maybe we'd all be a lot happier if there had been. But I won't reflect on that.

Um, The Rock then gave us a sense of being embattled. People would, neighbours would buy it and say to my mother "Are you sure Michael should go to that school because he could ...?", you know, read this.

Even though this was put out by fundamentalist Protestants?

Yes that's right. And ah Racobites - so the man who put it out was called Campbell and he's a very interesting study. And so we tended in those days to defend any behaviour that was questioned by others and to keep scandals in-house. I'm quite sure that if there had been such a scandal the priests or the senior Brothers would have said "Look, don't make any fuss about it". And would have sent the offender on a retreat, a reflective time and a time of prayer and then sent him to another school where he would have inevitably, ultimately fallen again.

But you didn't see any of that?

I didn't see that no. I only had the football coaching side, I remember Brother Markwell would tell us - he was a coach - and like many coaches he would use every motivational trick in the book, and he would say, "Over there ...", particularly if we were playing in state championships against state schools. You know he'd say, "Over there is a team of state school boys and their coach hasn't put into them what I have put in because he has the cares of a family. So you're going to just, you know, play your game because you're going to beat them and by the way let's say three Hail Marys to Our Lady of victories and it will just show, you've got to show them what Catholics are made of and basically Henry the Eighth was wrong. And you're to show that on the scoreboard".

And so I didn't see that, I saw a bit of eccentricity of that nature but I didn't see any scandal. No ... we used to - I mean, there was heavy protection of people then to avoid scandal. I'm sorry I interrupted you.

No. At a day-to-day level, what did you boys at St Pat's think of Protestants?

Well they were non-Catholics and it was an unfortunate thing to marry them. This sectarianism - um, I met a priest recently, an Irish priest when I was on QEII giving lectures and he said that the separate school system was a great aid to sectarianism and I have to say it was. And maybe it would have been better if we'd all gone to state schools. It would have been better for the social fabric, because there was a great deal of sectarian bitterness particularly - actually in the early colony you know, many of the governors were wiggish Protestants who were all in favour of Catholic emancipation.

But after the shooting of Prince Alfred at Clontarf in 1868 and then after the conscription battles of World War I, there was great suspicion of Catholics, so I've forgotten the question you asked me now.

Well I was talking about your own experience of this because - how did you regard Protestants and did you ever play with them?

Yeah. Yes I did. I, that's the whole thing about Australia. Australia integrated the - brought on the ships and unleashed in the society the dogs of sectarianism, which had existed in other places - in Glasgow, in Liverpool and of course in Ireland, north and south. And um, we thought, we were told that we were the chosen people that's why they despised us. And there's a great challenge to pluralism in telling a child that, you know, you're the one who has the real truth. And your little friends out there with whom you play in the street don't. You know, they might be well-meaning and, but really if things were proper they'd all be Catholics too.

But in practice Australia - the pluralism of Australia - sorry the sectarianism to an extent stopped at the time you took your uniform off after coming home from school. There were a few Ulster-style stone throwings between state school kids and Catholic kids on the way home. And many a state school brilliant Australian whom I've met tells me how scared he was as a little kid, or she was as a little kid, by these great roaring freckled Irish gangster types who'd be yelling abuse across the street and hurling rocks. And I had to tell them I had the same experience of big, solid Protos you know, yelling things at us and being just as scared. And it was a pity that that divide existed.

But once you got your school uniform off then you played, unlike Ulster, you played promiscuously in the street with people from - whose fathers were communists from the meatworks with, you know, kids from the state school. And that was what saved us from the worst demons of sectarianism, I think. It gave us, the Catholic school system gave us a strong identity and many good stories to tell, but whether it was positive socially in a very bigoted society, I don't know. [INTERRUPTION]

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