Book extract: Keneally does it again

Day 20: Few Australian authors are as well-known as Tom Keneally.

He was born in 1935 and his first novel was published in 1964. Since then he has written a considerable number of novels and non-fiction works. He has won the Miles Franklin Award, the Booker Prize, the Los Angeles Times Prize, the Mondello International Prize and has been made a Literary Lion of the New York Public Library, a Fellow of the American Academy, recipient of the University of California gold medal, and is now the subject of a 55 cent Australian stamp. He has held various academic posts in the United States, but lives in Sydney.

The Dickens Boy by Tom Keneally.
The Dickens Boy by Tom Keneally.

Extract from The Dickens Boy by Tom Keneally:

A long ocean voyage seems plentiful in small incidents at the time, but is remembered as a blur when it ends. On my journey to Australia on the Sussex, a gentleman in the saloon said one day off Africa that only being wrecked would save us from the tedium. But after Cape Town it was all wind and fury as we tore across the Indian Ocean and the base of the Australian continent to our destination.

Even at sixteen, after I arrived in Melbourne I knew it was a remarkable place and that I would have no trouble writing about it to Mama, Aunt Georgina and the guvnor. A great city built on the riches provided by the gold of Victoria’s hinterland – unlike Manchester or Liverpool or Nottingham or such – it had not grown from some dreary medieval village or fearsome coalpit. It was a lively British city fifteen thousand miles from its parent.

In such a place one finds a particular kind of Briton. My Australian mentor, George Rusden, was a scholarly, British sort of Melbournian. He had come to Australia as a boy with his clergyman father and had later explored the country and driven livestock through it. As clerk of the Parliament of Victoria, he had the final say on parliamentary procedure in a booming and self-governing colony.

Rusden had somehow met up with my father in London some years past. He struck me as a Tory and was certainly not therefore the sort of fellow who would have consorted with my father – and he wasn’t pliable in the way I sensed the guvnor was, nor likely to wear a flash waistcoat nor be a critic of slums or an honest roisterer down towpaths. He was, though, a scholar and a billiard-player. The guvnor was indifferent to the sport of billiards.

Mr Rusden had done a lot for the colony – including building a statue of Shakespeare at Melbourne University. He saw the Empire as a sort of Federated States of Britain, and Melbourne sang from the south to London and Edinburgh in the north, and they – as it were – sang back. Rusden was the sort of fellow determined to ensure the chorus would continue.

But having been charged with helping me, he took his duty by me very seriously from the moment he and my brother, Alfred, met my ship and took me to the Rusden house in the Melbourne area of Brighton.

It was good to have Alfred there, sitting by Mr Rusden’s desk and winking at me now and then as Rusden spoke to me. For Alfred had become something of a sport, with none of the adolescent sullenness he used to show me when I was twelve. He had been managing a sheep station named Conoble, deep in the hinterland, for some time, and had a slightly weathered face to show for it. Corona, his new post, was a place of some thousands of acres with 100,000 sheep that needed to be shorn each year. And that was what I noticed: here tens of thousands of acres was the normal astounding fact, and everyone forced themselves to be calm about it. Alfred had written to my father saying he was happy as a king at Conoble, and now he was going to manage another station of similar dimensions, this place named Corona up in New South Wales. ‘Are you working through the alphabet?’ I asked him, but there seemed a quaver in my voice perhaps only I could hear. Like him, I wanted to be happy as a king at the sheep station I was slated for, Eli Elwah, which was five hundred square miles and had a twenty-mile frontage on a river named the Murrumbidgee.

Alfred winked at me again as Mr Rusden said, ‘Do not be seduced by the egalitarian principle here. Do not allow the men working on the station to treat you as a familiar. If they show any tendency to do so, quash it at once with firmness. Under these different stars, you must remain an English gentleman and maintain the reserve associated with that high office.’

‘I’ll remember, sir,’ I said earnestly, half still a schoolboy.

‘Make no mistake, it can be lonely on a station out in the bush,’ Rusden continued, ‘and many good men are seduced into rough company. There is an answer to this in matrimony with one of the many sturdy and handsome daughters of neighbouring squatters. But you are too young yet, and if you wish to be a pastoralist on your own terms you must maintain your distance from your inferiors. Some of the men are roguish and would not be beyond corrupting you with native women while you’re in your cups, do you understand?’

I nodded. As the youngest of ten children I could see that even jovial men might think it somehow funny, as older men considered all bullying funny.

‘I hope that advice is not repellent to you,’ said Mr Rusden. ‘But you are as good as a man now.’

‘As good as a man,’ Alfred confirmed, smoking his cheroot and calm as Socrates.

The Dickens Boy by Tom Keneally© Tom Keneally 2020, Penguin Random House Australia, is available from all book retailers.

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