Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 19, 2011

Alva’s Boy, by Alan Collins

A little while ago I discovered the work of Alan Collins (1928-2008) when I read A Promised Land? a trilogy which featured the wretched childhood of a young boy growing up in Sydney in the 1930s and 40s. Alva’s Boy, An Unsentimental Memoir, is the remarkable story of the author’s childhood on which the novels were based.

In a book featuring many poignant moments, the title is especially so.  Alva was Collins’ mother who died in childbirth in 1928; he never knew her.  Yet by naming the book as he has, it seems that she mattered more to him than the feckless father who abandoned him first to a succession of children’s homes and an unsatisfactory foster home, and then abrogated all responsibility for him when he did at last bring the boy into the family.

There were relations who were willing to care for the child but Sampson Collins rejected them.  However in Sydney’s Jewish community Alan was forever running into people who identified him as ‘poor Alva’s boy’.   Although he never knew the love of a mother, Alva was a presence in his life nonetheless, to the extent that his longing for her enabled him to write vividly about her many long years after her death.

However the title also points to the way her name was used to label the boy.  Amongst many other privations, Alan was also deprived of his name.  His stepmother called him Brat, and her truly horrible mother called him Jewboy.   Even his father rarely called him by his name.

It’s not a misery memoir – Alan’s boyhood escapades and his irrepressible humour make sure of that – but he really did have a wretched childhood.   Having been spurned, the relations who professed to want him visited him only rarely at the home.  He was neglected by his foster parents Cissie and Harry, and his father’s behaviour was unconscionable.  A ladies man down on his luck, Sampson Collins submitted to the tyranny of Alva’s successors by refusing to have Alan at all when he was married to Bella, and then by turning a blind eye to base cruelty when he was married to Shirley.

On the night they moved into a house together they had no furniture, so they spent the night at a hotel – all except Alan aged 8, who they left alone in the house on his own.  The first time the child slept on a bed was when he was ten and a neighbour took pity on him and arranged a farm holiday for him.  The family ate separately: he had his own tin plate and cutlery which he had to wash himself.  He was always poorly fed and noticeably thin, and to add to his misery he was subjected to anti-Semitic taunts at school even though he knew very little about his religion.

Nevertheless, with initiative and an innate sense of optimism, Alan managed to survive the chaos of this upbringing.  He lived on his wits and occasional stolen food and scrounged odd jobs around Sydney. But the highlight of his childhood was reading, for a kindly librarian waived the penny fee for this unloved and grubby boy so that he could always escape into the world of books.

In adulthood Alan Collins became a self-educated man by reading in libraries – so there is a pleasing symmetry to his eventual career in printing, copywriting, journalism (including a stint as editor of the Sydney Jewish News) and eventually full-time writing…

It is to be hoped that no child in Australia lives this kind of life today.

©Lisa Hill

Author: Alan Collins
Title: Alva’s Boy
Publisher: Hybrid Books, 2008
ISBN: 9781876462666
Source: Ros Collins, Executor of the Estate of Alan Collins.

Copies of this book can be bought from the Alan Collins website.

Update 1.4.11

Alva’s Boy is now available as an eBook too, from Amazon.


Responses

  1. Barry O’Farrell (probably next NSW Premier) launched Alva’s Boy in Sydney. Like Lisa, he also talked about Alan’s ‘escape into the world of books’; I’ve stood at Ben Buckler and imagined the boy curled up on the rocks devouring stolen fruit and reading Lawson and Banjo Paterson But Barry was particularly interested in Alan’s ‘take’ on the culture clash between refugees and the local Bondi community during the 1940s: “This was a time of the ‘great awakening of Australia’. When this country’s gaze expanded from a narrow focus on Britain, to a wider, more worldly view….and in Alan Collins’ Alva’s Boy their [the newcomers] first tentative, difficult steps are detailed, their reception captured…he describes a period that is as much a part of this nation’s history as Cook’s voyage of discovery or the arrival of the First Fleet.” I grew up in London. For me the book is a fascinating social history of Sydney with much the same truth, humour and compassion as in Ruth Park’s novels. Lisa is absolutely right to say this is not a ‘misery memoir’; the poet Alex Skovron who launched the book in Melbourne said, ‘…[Alan’s] narrative skill, his gift for storytelling, carries the reader forward with a fluidity and grace all too often belied by the events and experiences being described….a masterly balancing act in his blending of realism, recollection, reconstruction, humour, pathos, irony, tragedy and joy…’

    • Yes, Ros, and how interesting it is that you write this comment about the local community and the refugees on the very day that I read in one of our national newspapers about a woman who was able to escape Iran through ‘the right channels’ criticising those who come as refugees. It seems that native-born Australians are not the only ones to perpetuate this lack of welcome to people who have enriched the diversity of our nation in so many ways.

  2. I’ve been waiting for this review, Lisa. It’s inspiring to think that those who grow up in wretched circumstances can come out the other side as fully rounded, successful, productive adults, when the media/politicians/society etc would have us believe that they will only ever become criminals and/or rely on welfare to get by.

    • Yes, it’s inspirational in the way that Bert Facey’s A Fortunate Life is.

  3. Oh yes, how could I forget “A Fortunate Life” — read that one at school.
    We also read Alan Marshall’s “I Can Jump Puddles”, which was inspirational, too.

    • I read I Can Jump Puddles at school too!

  4. Good news! Alva’s Boy now on Amazon Kindle and bookshops should have stock or can easily obtain from Hybrid. A Thousand nights at the Ritz (shsort stories) should also be available through shops. Incidentally, anyone see a similarity between Alva and Angela’s Ashes – same wry humour?

    • Well done, Ros, that’s smart marketing in the digital age!
      Now, what you need to do next, is add the extra edition to Good Reads and Library Thing so that international readers who come across it there can buy a Kindle version if they like the sound of it.
      I hope sales go well.

  5. […] If, like me, Alan Collins is one of those writer’s who has slipped under your radar, then A Thousand Nights at the Ritz and other Stories is a terrific place to get to know him.  But be sure to follow it up with Alva’s Boy – check out Lisa Hill’s review. […]

  6. […] title is suggestive of Alan’s memoir Alva’s Boy (review at ANZ Litlovers) and, despite the gulf between the respective childhoods of the authors, the books make fine […]


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Categories

%d bloggers like this: