Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 6, 2011

Popeye Never Told You: Childhood Memories of the War (2010), by Rodney Hall

Cover of Love without HopeTalk about synchronicity!  Last week I went to the last in the series of Late Great Authors at the Wheeler Centre to hear playwright Darryl Emmerson* and author Rodney Hall in conversation about Christina Stead with broadcaster Ramona Koval.  It was a terrific session, with Ramona asking just the right questions to draw out different but complementary perspectives from these two men who know the work of Stead intimately.  It’s one of the best sessions I’ve been to.

Cover of The Day We Had Hitler HomeHall’s assertion about the merits of versatility in an author’s oeuvre  reminded me how much I had enjoyed his novels The Day We Had Hitler Home and Love without Hope,  so I laid aside Germinal  ‘just for a moment’ (famous last words!)  to start reading Popeye Never Told You: Childhood Memories of the WarIt’s Hall’s memoir of a childhood in rural England during WW2, a book I had bought earlier this year at the Woodend Arts Festival.  (On that occasion Hall was in conversation about memoir with Mary Delahunty, a session which for some mysterious reason I neglected to blog, sorry!)

It is a measure of Hall’s integrity that he did not take the opportunity at the Wheeler Centre to spruik his latest book.   He was there to talk about Christina Stead and he celebrated this great Australian writer to the delight of the audience, especially with his comment that reading Stead was like ‘reading with a high wind at your back’.   It was not until this morning as I browsed through book reviews in the Saturday papers that I discovered that his new book Silence  is now in the marketplace (and now – as soon as it arrives in the mail – on Mt TBR, of course, joining Hall’s Miles Franklin winning titles, Just Relations and The Grisly Wife.)  Silence is a collection of fiction writings in homage to his favourite writers, many of whom are also mine, and so I am looking forward to this one very much indeed.

Popeye Never Told You: Childhood Memories of the WarHall is himself, as Stella Clark says in her review, a versatile writer.  Love Without Hope (which was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin) explored incarceration without hope of escape and the indignities of old age in a crass commercial world.  The narrative is written partly in third person present tense and partly in Mrs Shoddy’s often tremulous voice as she retrieves a muddle of memories while trying to make sense of her treatment in a new and heartless void.  Popeye Never Told You: Childhood Memories of the War  however is written in the utterly convincing voice of a child in successive chapters which start when he is five.


the explosions are so close the bench shivers and i can feel the shivers through my bottom, and now a whole lot of children rush down the steps and come clattering in, but they stop once theyre in the door so that the ones coming behind have to crowd up against them, and theyve got runny noses and theres this bossy woman who lines them up and she hunts around to find room for them to sit, but they still crowd together like idiots and ready for trouble too and they stick their hands in their pockets and sniffle, and she rolls her eyes at me when she sees me watching but im not going to side with her,

‘are they orphans?’ i whisper to Mike,

‘i expect so’ Mike whispers back ‘evacuees’


a crack zigzags down the wall from the ceiling to the floor and people point it out,

‘we shall be alright, see?’ says Mum ‘the walls holding up’

but two little orphans start wailing and theyre girls and theyre smaller than me, and each ones got a label pinned on her jacket so maybe theyve been bombed out already and they wail and sob,

‘ssh, you two’ says the old bat ‘i shall be with you when i can’

but Mum drops her cigarette on the floor and unfolds her handkerchief and she goes across to wipe their tears and she wipes their noses too and she tells them to blow, and afterwards she drops the handkerchief on the ground and leaves it there, but she lifts one child on each arm and brings them back to us, and their shoes make smudges on her skirt and i try to point this out while they settle their heads against her shoulders and bury their grubby faces in her fur collar, just where i want to be, and they turn their eyes up to look at her.   (p39-40)

Perhaps this strikes an emotional chord with me because my father and his little brother lost their home in the Blitz, and had a rough time as evacuees.  But I defy anyone to read those lines without a lump in the throat.

It’s a poignant, beautiful book, and a testimony to the human spirit, but it also shows Hall’s great skill as a writer.  Inspired by a young colleague who said that young readers were more interested in the experience than a factual account, he was experimenting with a new way of writing, creating a narrative that relived the moment without including connecting material to set the context – because that’s the way young children think and feel.     As you can hear in this interview with Richard Aedy at  ABC Radio National’s Life Matter’s website, he wanted to show what it was like to be ‘inside’ a little boy who had a great deal of freedom because his widowed mother often had severe headaches, but who also suffered the privations of war.  Living in a rural area was not like the daily horror of the Blitz, but there was random bombing (from bombers offloading their bombs to gain height and speed as they returned to Germany), and one of his earliest memories is of a house being blown up across the street.  In the interview he explains the technical difficulty of writing from the child’s perspective, having clear memories but uncertainty about the order of events. He resolved the challenge by recreating the random impressions of the child in a cheeky, inquisitive and optimistic voice which charmed this reader from the first page.  It works perfectly as you share the child’s delight in a food parcel from Australia, his disappointment when a rich uncle won’t let him ride in the swanky car, and his astonishment when he sees a real orange for the first time in his life.

Highly recommended.

Helen from OZ  liked it too.

*Emmerson’s contribution made me wonder how it was that I missed his play about Christina Stead.  I  Write What I See: Christina Stead Speaks, starring Olivia Brown, was performed at the Old Council Chambers, Trades Hall, in October last year. I’d have loved to have seen it but I didn’t even know it was on.

©Lisa Hill

Author: Rodney Hall
Title: Popeye Never Told You: Childhood Memories of the War
Publisher: Pier 9, (Murdoch Books)  2010
ISBN: 9781741967593
Source: Personal library, purchased at the Woodend Arts Festival bookshop


  1. The play was badly advertised. Even at the venue itself I had to walk from one door to the other to work out where it was, and the first sign I found was a bit of paper stuck to a bannister halfway up a stairwell. But I only went once, and they might have put up more signs later on. There was a website and a facebook page, and I think it was pre-mentioned in at least one theatre magazine.


    • By the way, do you know if that Wheeler talk was recorded or transcribed anywhere?

      (In unrelated recent Stead news, the Man Who Loved was translated into Spanish earlier this year: El hombre que amaba a los niños. Traducción: Silvia Barbero Marchena.)


      • No, I’ve been thinking about it, and let me take back my “badly advertised.” The play had a short spot in the Age before it ran, and there were other mentions too. That’s not bad for a small-scale play.


      • Hi Deane, it will be on the Wheeler centre website eventually. You’ll have to keep checking back on and off over the next fortnight or so, but it will be there. There are some other great talks there too. Cheers Lisa


        • Thank you. I’ll keep checking.


  2. I’d like to read the Hall memoir one day … I’ve read Just relations (long ago) and liked it a lot. And I’ve read The day we had Hitler home. He’s an interesting man isn’t he.


    • You’re ahead of me, then, Sue. I have got Just Relations, and The Grisly Wife, but I’m trying to read my Miles Franklin winners in chronological order – and I have quite a few to read before I get to them.


      • Oh good for you. I don’t have such a plan (though it wouldn’t hurt me if I did reckon) … I read this with my reading group back in our early days. It was one of our more “original” reads back then.


        • *chuckle* Plans appeal to my love of designing intellectual architecture – strategic planning, implementation routes, policy and program development etc, i.e. all that stuff that I do at work – but like most INTPs I get bored with actually implementing them and am forever tempted to flit from one thing to the other and enjoy serendipity. With books, as you can probably tell, I most often succumb.
          Maybe being able to succumb to this side of my personality is what keeps me (kind-of) sane in the well-ordered world of school?


  3. Hello Everyone

    Thanks for your interest in my play Some extracts, reviews and commentary are at:


    Darryl Emmerson


    • Hello Darryl, do let me know if it’s being staged again somewhere in Melbourne, please.


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