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You are here: Home Leisure Arts & Culture A life more ordinary
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03/08/2003A life more ordinary

He may not have been raised bog-Irish poor, but our middle-class Australian critic found parallels between himself and Angela's Ashes writer Frank McCourt. Read a review with an unusual twist.

A happy childhood is a terrible handicap in life.

It robs you of the personality disorders that so often seem to fuel material success and deprives you of the raw material for a good life's story.

Frank McCourt has won deserved acclaim for his account of his childhood in Ireland in the 1920's and 30's which is both in your local bookshop and on the big screen under the title of Angela's Ashes.

It is an unsentimental account of a childhood which was harrowing, with a capital 'H.'

Death, disease, poverty, destitution, cruelty, homelessness, drunkenness, bigotry, ignorance - all that and he could still see the joke.

His childhood and my own were separated by about 30 years and the distance between Limerick and Sydney and the gap between the bog-Irish poor and the Australian middle class.

But they also share some common ground. It was a fairly Irish Australia that I grew up in, peopled with teachers and family friends named Slattery, O'Brien, Keating, Sheehan and Maloney.

In fact my Jesuit schooling had some of the brutality and religious intolerance that Frank McCourt encountered.

Many of the teachers were excellent, but they also thought little of hitting small children and the spontaneous swipes were not the worst of it.

Nor even was the prolonged pain of the Latin teacher, who would take a pinch of flesh by your rib cage between his index finger and this thumbnail, which was like a screwdriver, and twist and tighten until you completed the declension of 'mensa.'

The worst was in the junior school when for some offence, like misbehaviour or maybe a spelling mistake, the teacher would enter your name in the 'Doomsday Book' with a number from one to six next to it.

This meant you, and that morning's fellow offenders, would, at lunchtime, have to take the book and stand outside the Prefect of Studies office, in a queue of other malefactors.

When your turn came his wooden and mottled glass door would slide back and you would be called in.

Outside you had been rubbing your hands vigorously because you knew you were getting the 'strap' - the number next to your name indicated how often you would be hit.

Two hits of the strap for a minor offence, I don't think anything merited only one, up to six for serious wrongdoing.

The strap was a strip of multi-layered leather, reinforced with whalebone some believed, about as long as a man's forearm.

Each priest had his own strap and, over time, they would take on the character of the owner.

The sleek, Brylcreemed, athletic young priest had a strap that gleamed like his hair.

Old Toddy, who lived in a permanent haze of chalk and halitosis, had a strap bound by tape at one end while the other end had split making the leather strips quack like a duck when it moved.

Some priests knew how to really make it hurt, but they all hurt.

The pain was only part of the punishment, you had already undergone a morning of tortured anticipation by the time you heard the words: "Hold out your hand….Don't pull away…you'll only make it worse."

Your terror had risen as had been waiting in line, hearing the cracks of leather on the small hands of those in front of you.

This by the way was all taking place in sunny Sydney around 1960, not 1860.

That, it seems to me would have a publisher's interest piqued as I tried to sell my autobiography, but I'm afraid the story might fall away a bit from there

Publisher: "So Mr Benson, remarkable stuff - and when you turned from school at the end of the day, your hands still red from the lunchtime punishment - how did life proceed. Barefoot and hungry, you faced a four-mile walk home?

MB: "Well, actually a train one stop across the Sydney Harbour Bridge, then the 316 home.

P: "Squalid?

MB: "Beds unmade for days at a time.

P: "Where, in this cramped unit without electric power you sought solace in the classics?

MB: "Where I turned on Get Smart and divided my time between homework, TV and bouncing a ball against a wall until dinner.

P: "Which consisted of stale crusts and dank tea warmed over - you ate it while dreaming of finding a better life in a new land.

MB: "Well my mother was one of Australia's worst and least enthusiastic cooks, but I don't think we ever contemplated actual emigration.

P: "And so to bed, sleeping head to toe in a single bed with six other family members.

MB: "Ummm, one brother in the same room…We called it the boys' room," I might add, hoping to hint at the sort of linguistic inventiveness expected of an Irish writer.

P: "All extraordinarily interesting," he'd say, reaching for the rejection slips.

MB: "We could pump up the Irish bit if you like. My brother has an Irish name, or we could make him Malachy…I could be O'Benson."

No let's be honest. Mine is a life which could be comfortably recorded in the margins of a TV guide.

I'll leave the autobiography business to Frank McCourt.

Angela's Ashes is a great read…be Jaysus, be Jaysus!!.

Marius Benson

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