Books That Bullied Me at School: The Shrimps on the Barbie

on Friday, June 25, 2010
There was a long, blue corduroy cushion that stretched half the length of my primary school library. It was known to all as The Bookworm, for its body lay coiled in an "S" shape and some thoughtful biddy had stitched a grinning cartoon face to one end. Each week, from Grade 2 until Grade 6, my class would be led past the Mechano-esque steel racks to take our seats on The Bookworm and have the latest kid-lit phenomenon read to us by our teacher. I always made sure I sat in the middle. I was petrified the thing would spin around and, with viper like swiftness, eat me. For others it was more bed than seat. And then there were those for whom The Bookworm was a glorified tissue, as they eagerly picked their noses and wiped it in the corduroy valleys. It was upon this mucous wasteland that I was first introduced to the wonders of Australian literature.

One day, rather than taking her usual seat up the front, our teacher wheeled across a TV and inserted a video into the bulky box of a player. We were overjoyed - our primary teachers invariably had one of two annoying habits when they read to us. They spoke in either a monotonous drone or with patronising zeal. Equally torturous. But on that fateful day the wonder of television, something that many of us weren't allowed to watch too often at home, had come to our rescue. The film was Storm Boy and I was in awe. The gorgeous story of a young boy struggling to reconcile his quiet life with the expectations of society, and Mr. Percival, a pelican the boy rescues after its mother is shot, can still choke me up after almost twenty-five years. That day I think I single handedly soaked The Bookworm with my tears. Whatever, it needed a wash anyway. I immediately hit the Mechano shelves and grabbed the novel by Colin Thiele, astounded that something so close to home could have such a profound effect on me.

Why, oh why, then did Mt Scopus have to go and ruin it all? I wish I could say it all came crashing down with a thunderous bang, but in reality my Year 7 Australian English text tumbled like the proverbial tree in the forest with no-one around to hear. I was at dinner a few nights ago, a reunion of sorts, when the conversation turned to this blog. Yes, I even bore my friends with this crap in the real world. Anyway, a friend piped up, "What about Arkie Gerhardt?" It was an epiphany for him. The rest of us around the table had no idea what he was talking about. He then went on to describe Simon French's All We Know to a wall of blank faces. "You must add it to your list. Find it." Thanks to an internet call-out, and an old friend who apparently hordes school books even more fanatically then me, I was able to revisit this chunk of literary beige for The Books That Bullied Me at School challenge. In telling you here, I also serve to remind myself. All We Know is a thoroughly unremarkable book. There is nothing that makes it especially Australian. Worse still, it plays to every terrible pre-teen cliche imaginable - the broken home, the onset of puberty, sibling rivalry, bullying, the transition to high school, childhood cliques... you name it! And the saccharine sweet message of holding onto your memories (represented here by Arkie's love of photography), but growing beyond them made me want to jab my insulin pen into the front cover. I wish I could tell you what it was about but, well, it ain't about jack. It is a slice of everyday life that could well have taken place in any city at any time in the past three decades. To be fair, Simon French is a great Australian children's author. It's just a shame our teachers had to go and spoil him for us by giving us his one real dud.

The cultural cringe must have set in for both students and teachers alike, for it wasn't until Year 11 that we were given another Australian book to study. This time it was Ruth Park's much-loved The Harp In The South which, as I recall, was met with general indifference. It left very little of a mark on me. I remember the unwanted pregnancies. I remember twelve and a half Plymouth Street, Surry Hills. And, most of all, I remember the kindly shopkeeper Lick Jimmy, if only because we used to relish the mocking transliteration of his speech. It really spoke to the close-minded intolerances of sixteen year-old children. But I can't remember a great deal more. When I set out to reread it for this month's challenge, I went in with an open mind, fully aware that I might just have been too immature to appreciate it. Turns out I was right, sort of. The Harp In The South is a Dickensian slice of old Australiana, with all the nastiness, bigotry and glorious political incorrectness that such a sobriquet implies. Unfortunately, it often verges on the hackneyed and has aged badly. As an historical text, both in terms of what Australian writing used to be and how working class Sydney folk once got about, it remains of some interest but it certainly won't go down as the great Australian novel. Even my grandmother would cringe at some of its cheesier passages.

By the time I hit Year 12, I had developed a violent aversion to Australian literature. It certainly didn't help that I was eagerly engrossing myself in a Czech heritage to which I had only just found an entree. His name is Karel Capek. Check him out if you get the chance. Back at school, I was set to do myself one of the great disservices of my life; I was to pay the shortest of shrifts to George Johnston's classic novel of Depression-era Melbourne, My Brother Jack. And it would not be until this week, some fifteen years later, that I would realise my mistake. With neither the bland universality of All We Know or the parochial tweeness of Harp In The South, this Miles Franklin winning masterpiece brims with a gritty, hopeful Australian spirit. Far from making me hide with embarrassment in the corner, its local Melbourne setting anchors it in a way that seems both relevant and meaningful to my life. Davey Meredith, Johnston's thinly-veiled alter ego, is a divining rod for the blood that coursed through my home town between the wars. His brother Jack embodies the gruff but good hearted Australian masculine ideal - the soldier, the tinker, the rebel, the family man. As Davey ascends the journalistic ladder, allowing him to escape the ravages of the Depression, Jack does it tougher, but always with a no-nonsense persistence. The prose is worldly but distinctly Australian, elegantly woven like the back streets of Melbourne. I was a fool to snub my nose at this exceptional book all those years ago, poisoned by arrogance and destined to ignore Australian literature for almost a decade. And now a crisis... have I similarly misjudged Bryce Courtenay? Thanks a lot Arkie Gerhardt!


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