Jeremy Clarke

Low Life | 23 May 2009

Essential values

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My last day in Australia I spent in Sydney. In the afternoon, under a blackening sky, I took the ferry out to Manly, sat on the beach and wrote a letter to my boy, enclosing a sample of Manly sand between the pages. Then I returned by ferry to Sydney, and on the way back to the hostel I stopped off at a city centre bookstore. While visiting Digger in Kalgoorlie, he’d praised a biography called A Fortunate Life as a classic of Australian literature, and I thought I’d see if they had a copy that I could look at and possibly buy.

A.B. Facey was born in the goldfields of Victoria in the 1890s. Aged two he lost his gold prospector father to typhoid and his mum left him in the care of his grandmother. He started work as a farm labourer aged eight. After visiting a country fair in his teens, he became a fairground boxer. He joined the army in 1915 and was wounded at Gallipoli. Two of his brothers were killed there.

After the war he tried farming under the Soldier Settlement Scheme, but the farm went under in the Great Depression. He went to work for the tramways and became a union organiser.

The great beauty of Facey’s book, said Digger, is in the powerful simplicity of the uneducated prose style and in Facey’s modesty, his fundamental decency, and in his indomitable spirit in spite of almost continual hardship. Publishing a memoir was far from Facey’s mind until late in his life when his family urged him to write down some of his experiences. He died nine months after the manuscript was published, in 1982. Australians immediately took this book to their hearts, said Digger, because in many ways it is an account of modern Australian history, and of the essential values of hard work, fortitude and physical courage that Australians particularly admire.

If camp is a kind of theatrical archness invented by English homosexuals, the chap on the information desk at the bookstore had taken it to a whole new level. ‘How very sweet of you to ask!’ he said, when I asked him whether he had A Fortunate Life. ‘Are you an angel or something? Between us, it’s absolute hell at the moment. I don’t know where to begin. Oh, you mean a book! Silly me. Let’s have a look, shall we?’ He tapped on his keyboard as if afraid that it might bite him back, then braced himself in case something upsetting was about to appear on his screen. ‘I’ve got A Fortunate Life by Paddy Ashdown,’ he said. ‘Whoever HE is.’ ‘No,’ I said. ‘No. No. No. Facey. AB. Albert Barney.’ He shuddered, waggled artistic fingers at me, then bent once more to his keyboard. ‘Ah, yes. Here we are! So many fortunate lives! I had no idea!’ He came flouncing out from behind the counter to lead the way, and it was only then I saw that attached to his back was a diaphanous pair of fairy wings.

I returned with A.B. Facey’s life story to the towering 500-bed backpackers’ hostel where I had a room to myself overlooking the central station. I lay on my back on my bunk, started to read, and was immediately hooked by the simple clarity of an uneducated prose style harnessed to an exceptionally un-neurotic consciousness. Here was man born with a natural immunity to the teachings of Freud. I wondered whether this was what he must mean by ‘fortunate’. And then I wondered whether this was why Australians, who seem to be a national repudiation of the theory of the unconscious mind, took so warmly to the book.

Then a sort of Orwellian loudspeaker somewhere in the room (so well disguised that I couldn’t positively identify it) crackled into life and a deliriously happy male voice urged me to go down to the basement bar, where, in the next hour, I could get any two drinks for the price of one. Anxious not to be seen as a Pommy stick-in-the-mud, I went down, taking A Fortunate Life with me in case there was nobody to talk to.

But in this friendliest of countries there is always somebody to talk to. As soon as I walked through the door I was press-ganged into a quiz team comprised of six deliriously happy young Englishwomen (we were called Spit or Swallow), who between them didn’t even know what the capital of Slovenia was. A Fortunate Life lay ignored and unopened on the bar until about three hours later, when this very aggressive young Australian man came up and loudly berated me for bringing a book into a bar and accused me of reading. Then he snatched the book away, saying he was going to have to confiscate it. Two minutes later he was back, his arm around my shoulder. ‘Here’s your book back, mate,’ he said. ‘Best book I ever read.’ He opened it and showed me my letter to my boy. ‘You’ve got a letter in there to post, don’t forget.’