Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 4, 2009

Opening Lines: My Brother Jack by George Johnson (1964)

My Brother JackMy Brother Jack, by George Johnson, won the Miles Franklin in 1964.  These are the opening lines….

My brother Jack does not come into the story straight away.  Nobody ever does, of course, because a person doesn’t begin to exist without parents and an environment and legendary tales told about ancestors and dark dusty vines growing over outhouses where remarkable insects might always drop out of hidden crevices.

Childhood, looking back on it, is like this – a mess of memories and impressions scattered and clotted and pasted together like a mulch of fallen leaves on a damp autumn pavement.  So the first memory, naturally is of  a childhood we shared together – he was only three years my senior but he always seemed to me to be much, much older – and although it is a memory made up of many parts, distinct and indistinct, mundane and fantastic, coherent and incomprehensible, it is fixed now into a final and exact if distant image of  a place once lived in and never to be returned to, like the city seen by the wife of Lot in that last yearning moment before she became the pillar of salt.

(Collins Fontana, 1964,  p7)


  1. That makes me want to read the book. Again. For like the sixth, or is it seventh (?) time.


    • Hi Kim, how’s autumn in my favourite city? My Brother Jack is *the* book that I always recommend when someone in an international book group asks for Aust Lit suggestions. To me, it is the quintessential Australian novel: as I have written elsewhere: it captures our national obsession about the Anzacs and the damage done to them and theirs; it shows our two biggest cities: Melbourne in the interwar years and Sydney in World War 2; it features laconic Aussie humour and a lovable larrikin; and it explores the psychological conflict between the ‘life of the mind’ and the life of the typical Aussie bloke. I’ve only read it three times, but have found new insights each time. It’s great literature, but easy to read. I read Clean Straw for Nothing too, but didn’t enjoy it so much. Lisa


  2. This is my favourite book of all-time, Lisa.

    I still very strongly identify with its anti-suburban content, too, and I often think about Davey planting the gum tree in his front lawn just to piss off his neighbours!

    I agree about Clean Straw for Nothing — nowhere near as good. And Cartload of Clay was disappointing too.


    • Hi Kim The anti-suburban theme ran very strongly at that time…I finally got round to watching Revolutionary Road on DVD last night (nowhere near as good as the book ) and there were the suburbs again in all their bleak conformity. Remember that poem ‘The Suburbs are Good for the Children but No Place for a grown-up To Be? Judith Viorst, was it? Mind you, I have lived contentedly in the suburbs for 30 years now, and seen my suburb become almost the inner city as Melbourne has grown…. Lisa


  3. Yes, when I watched Revolutionary Road last night too (great minds think alike!) and I noticed the anti-suburban theme in that one too…

    I have held strong against living the suburban life, even if it means I have to live in a pokey little flat, I like being so close to the centre of London (we’re in Zone 2), but have watched a succession of friends get married, move out and start their families… Sometimes I yearn for a garden, but then I go lay in the communal garden here and feel a little better because at least I dont have to cut the lawns and do the weeding!


    • Living in inner city London would be brilliant, Kim. I fancy Bloomsbury, preferably within a stone’s throw of the library LOL. I lived in Chelsea as a very little girl because my mother couldn’t stand the suburbs. But inner city Melbourne is not quite the same thing…and neither are the ‘burbs…not so conformist as those rows of houses all exactly the same, and these days, offering almost everything the CBD offers.


  4. Oooh, we’ve often discussed moving closer into town and Bloomsbury is where we would go… however, the price of property there is a little out of our price range. We’re in West Kensington.


    • *chuckle* Oh, the Aussie dollar is riding high at the moment, I could probably afford a kennel there I think…. Lisa


  5. […] writing couple, and that brings me to George Johnson, who won the Miles Franklin Award in 1964 for My Brother Jack. His wife was the inimitable Charmian Clift whose essays I reviewed a while ago and whose novels I […]


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