Barry Oakley is a well-known author, playwright and former literary editor of The Australian. By his own account he has had a very varied career, which takes up a double page spread in my copy of The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature (1985). (I had to look him up in that because inexplicably, he doesn’t have a Wikipedia page, though a film made of his play The Great Macarthy does). He has worked in advertising and copywriting, been a teacher and a tertiary lecturer, and had a stint at the ABC drama department, writing copiously all the while and producing numerous plays and half-a-dozen novels. His style is ironic and absurdist.
His memoir, Mug Shots, is likened to the style of Clive James, but I’m not really a fan of the comic memoir. I prefer the mature reflections of a memoir like Robert Drewe’s Montebello (see my review), a book which introduced me to aspects of Western Australian history that I didn’t know about. However I was enjoying Mug Shots until I reached page 51.
Oakley has the kind of dry humour that I like, and this memoir of a Catholic boyhood in the suburbs of Melbourne was fascinating reading. As a boy, he went to the same CBC (Christian Brothers College) as The Ex-husband did, and he tells the same sort of stories about the idiosyncracies of a Catholic education even though there is a twenty year gap between their respective sojourns. But although they both suffered the same rigorous approach to education i.e. thrash anyone who doesn’t learn, there is no bitterness in Oakley’s tales. Indeed, he has some sympathy for the brothers who, he says, led a lonely life of privation and that it’s to their credit that so few of them behaved in ways that are currently the focus of so much media attention.
I’d like to be able to just say that it must be hard to keep the faith these days, and leave it at that. But unfortunately there is something about his tone in the chapter entitled ‘Two Boys’ that made me feel a bit uneasy …
As the grinding-wheel wore on – hitchhikes in the winter cold, the daily battle to maintain order and interest – I longed for escape, but not in the way of Jim Kennedy. Kennedy, porridge-pale and melancholy, taught at the high school with Kevin Keating, and it was Keating who broke the news to me.
‘Jim Kennedy’s on a morals charge, ‘ he said, as we shared a late-afternoon bottle of beer. ‘The cops came and took him away. He’s just been released. I’ve invited him round.’
‘A morals charge?’
We sat down to eat our nightly grilled chops and three veg, listening for footsteps on the stairs. Soon we heard them, then the knock on the door.
Jim Kennedy’s Celtic paleness had changed to grey, as if he’d suddenly turned sixty. No thanks, he wasn’t hungry. He sat in the single shabby armchair and stared ahead. The silence seemed unbreakable.
‘What’ll you do?’ Kevin managed.
‘Go. Tomorrow’s train. Go.’
Two boys. With one he’d have a chance, but not with two. (p. 51)
Kennedy has a drink of some dubious quality, and the next day Oakley with some reluctance goes to see him off on the train (but Kennedy walks past him as if he wasn’t there).
There is so much left unsaid about this incident. Sexual abuse of Catholic schoolboys in this period and beyond was sufficiently widespread to warrant a Royal Commission because it wasn’t dealt with: it was covered up and abusers were allowed to move on elsewhere. This anecdote (a page-and-a-half) is an admission that these two men knew about a colleague who’d been charged with abuse but it doesn’t tell us about Oakley’s attitude towards it then or now. The reader is no wiser about how friends might at the time or in retrospect reconcile their loyalty to a colleague with their (presumed) distaste for a heinous crime. The reader doesn’t even know whether the author credits the charges as credible or otherwise. I really don’t know what to make of the comment ‘With one he’d have a chance, but not with two’. A chance at what?
I found the inclusion of this anecdote troubling because the issue is not treated with the ethical consideration it deserves.
Unfortunately, that coloured my reading of the rest of the book. I was no longer amused.
For a different point of view, see Peter Craven in The Age. He thinks highly of this book and suggests that ‘syllabus makers could do worse’.
Author: Barry Oakley
Title: Mug Shots, A Memoir
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2012
Source: Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press