It was during my brief sojourn at Essendon North State School in the 1960s I learned for the first time that boys could Get The Strap. Apart from a few months as a five-year-old at a village school in Cornwall, my previous schools had been girls-only, and I had never before encountered this barbarity. When a boy at an adjacent desk returned from the principal’s office with his hand smarting from ‘six-of-the–best’, I was shocked. I could not believe that grown-ups could behave like this.
That sheltered childhood is long behind me but I had the same sense of disbelief when I read about the brutality of boarding school life in Boy on a Wire. Long-listed for the 2010 Miles Franklin, it’s a fictionalised memoir, based on Jon Doust’s own experiences at a boarding school in Western Australia in the 1960s. The routine violence that was inflicted even for minor misdemeanours was institutionalised by both masters and boys. Relentless bullying and bastardisation were part of the school tradition, and dobbing was never done. As a teacher myself, I cannot imagine working in such a brutal and degrading atmosphere, much less trying to learn anything there as a student.
The brutal boarding school has been immortalised through 19th century fiction, with sadistic masters like Mr. Brocklehurst in Jane Eyre and Gradgrind in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times. Flashman from Tom Brown’s Schooldays is notorious not least because he was representative of the kind of bully who thrived in British boarding schools, and possibly still does. As recently as the 1970s when the Monty Python team satirised Tom Brown’s Schooldays in the Tomkinson’s Schooldays episode of Ripping Yarns the audience laughed in recognition, and you can see from the comments below the clip on YouTube that it revives memories of school brutality even today.
There are some idealised examples of model schoolmasters in fiction. James Hilton’s Goodbye Mr Chips in 1933 depicted a more humane master and R.F.Delderfield’s 1972 novel To Serve Them All My Days showed a school’s progression towards pastoral care for its students in the aftermath of WWI. But there’s very little kindness on show in Boy on a Wire…
Doust has chosen to write with humour about his experiences but even allowing for some hyperbole, it seems from his story that the culture of institutionalised violence existed in Australian boarding schools in the 60s just as it did elsewhere. Doust’s book might well have been deeply depressing, but the irrepressible Jack Muir narrates the story without self-pity. Lonely and bewildered, he reflects on the cruel whims of his Old Testament God and the injustice of life with droll humour and sharp wit, but more significantly he shares with the reader his indignation and rage about the treatment of others more vulnerable – most notably ‘Sack’ – on whose behalf he wages a battle for vengeance over a long period of time.
Emerging not entirely unscathed but with his sense of optimism intact, Jack Muir is an engaging hero. The narrative voice is credible and compelling and the book has a structural coherence which is rare for this genre. What could easily have become a whining misery memoir is well controlled and just the right length.
I wonder what Doust will write next?
Apropos the comments below about whether or not Boy on a Wire could be tagged YA, I had an email from Fremantle Press to say that it is pitched at the adult market, but also that it is being included on some Senior Secondary Book Lists. In other words it is one of those books of interest to both adults and young people.
Oh, and Jon Doust will be at the Sydney Writers’ Festival – and he is working on a new book!