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Books Etcetera

by Edmund Campion

Gems for the Grassroots Historian: Memoirs of a Loose Canon; Memoirs of Moving On; The Sparrow Garden; God's Callgirl; The Boy in the Boat

What is the collective noun for a lot of autobiographies? I've been trying to think of one because I've recently read half a dozen autobiographies, each of them worth a mention in this column. I don't intent to review them at length here because when I started Books Etcetera I meant it to be a ramble round books of interest to Catholics - although I notice the editor sometimes prints formal reviews by other people under this column heading.

Stuart Barton Babbage's Memoirs of a Loose Canon (Acorn Press, $45) is the kind of book that has claims on our attention. A formal reviewer would have to assess his account of life as Anglican dean of Sydney, college principal and dean in Melbourne, theologian in USA, his return to Sydney as head of a UNSW college, theologian again... and so it goes. Another reviewer might start at the index and trawl through the many luminaries who have been the author's colleagues and friends, every one of them treated here with kindness and sagacity. Online Catholics readers must seek such reviews elsewhere. What catches my attention in the book are small tesserae in the vast mosaic of Australian religious history. Like getting bullets in the mail when he lectured critically on recent Roman Catholic dogmas, such as papal infallibility and the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Or the time Archbishop Marcus Loane told him he could preach in a presbyterian church but to avoid Roman Catholic pulpits. Or his assessment of the real maker of "Sydney Anglicanism", Broughton Knox, who held that ordination was special only because it enabled you financially to teach the Bible fulltime. Or his statement that the present dean of Sydney "is contemptuous of traditional church order."

Dorothy McRae-McMahon's Memoirs of Moving On (Jane Curry Publishing, $29.95) is not as well written as Stuart Barton Babbage's book (or perhaps he had stronger editors) but it resonated more with me. Perhaps this was because I too had an inner-city ministry for several years. Certainly this chapter on her decade as Uniting Church minister at Pitt Street church in Sydney made rivetting reading. Getting the call to Pitt Street, her delight in the beauty of that church and its possibilities reminded me exactly of the buoyancy young priests feel when they go into their own first parish - I thought (surprisingly) of The Diary of a Country Priest by Georges Bernanos. Then there were the street people and their fanciful tales of woe: across Hyde Park at the cathedral, we heard the same stories and had the same challenges to recognise genuine need. But, although I've had the odd bit of aggro over the years, there's been nothing like the harassment she encountered: death threats, heavying, shit and vomit in the letterbox, graffiti, lies, scurrilous rumours and the need to look after yourself because the police either weren't interested or disapproved of what you were doing. There's been some re-thinking about ministry in recent years; for anyone interested in this, Dorothy McRae-McMahon's book is a must- read. Opponents of women's ordination should read it too.

One autobiography I recommend unreservedly to Online Catholics readers is Peter Skrzyneckie's The Sparrow Garden (UQP, $22.95). It adds telling details to the map of modern Australia for, in recounting his family's story as migrants from Displaced Persons camps in Europe, Skrzyneckie becomes an authentic spokesman for a formative generation who sought and found their second chance here. He is a poet so his prose is alert to the shapes and sounds and colours framing their lives. Also, he is attentive to the meaning which Catholic rituals give to those lives. In Australian writing death is often left out of the story so it is noticeable that he devotes pages to the death and burial of his parents. One detail stays in the mind: on a visit to Poland Peter Skrzyneckie collected a little bag of soil, which he later took to his father's funeral. The Graveside announcement that he would sprinkle Polish soil on the coffin occasioned a near stampede. Polaka ziemia! Polaka ziemia! Polish soil! the old mourners repeated, as they pushed forward to experience it themselves, dipping their fingers into the bag when it was emptied as if in a sacramental encounter. A precious tessera, that one.

It's a small book, The Sparrow Garden, but every page sets you thinking, so that Peter Skrzyneckie and his autobiography are likely to remain with you as permanent furniture of your mind. There are much bigger books that pass through your head like white noise, leaving at most one or two slight impressions. God's Callgirl (HarperCollins, $29.95) by Carla Van Ray, for instance, is over 400 pages and was boosted in the weekend press as "one woman's life journey from convent to sex worker". I think we were supposed to be shocked. Yet the only impression of the book that stays in the mind is her post-convent involvement in various self realisation groups that seem inept and possibly manipulative. Curiously the self realisation movement is what's memorable about The Boy in the Boat (Limelight Press, POA), Brian O'Raleigh's autobiography that takes him from the usual horrors as a Catholic schoolboy - does anyone recall Roger McGough's poem

"It's enough to make you bash your head against a wall,
he said,
Bashing my head against a wall."?

through alcoholic degradation and then redemption by means of self realisation. I've sometimes wondered about the saviours who advertise in New Age forums and O'Raleigh adds a useful detail. Impressed by one American guru, he invited him to Australia to run weekend therapy sessions. The guru's fee for four weekends' work: $250,000. Yes, $250,000.

I started this column with a query about the collective noun for autobiographies because these days they crowd our bookshops. While I was writing the shortlist for the National Biography Award was announced: all autobiographies. Then there are the lesser known, often fugitive publications of people who want to tell their own story, possibly for the children of their grandchildren. Worthy books, of interest to historians of grassroots experience, they are often self-published and so don't make it into the bookshops or the review pages. You have to luck upon them somehow or other; or, if you're a grassroots historian, hope that someone will send you a copy. Such stray books are small but valuable streams in the flood tide of autobiographical story-telling we are currently experiencing. You never know, one of them might be A.B. Facey.

The Works:

  • Memoirs of a Loose Canon
  • Memoirs of Moving On
  • The Sparrow Garden
  • God's Callgirl
  • The Boy in the Boat

    Previous Columns:

  • Issue 1 Books Etc
  • Issue 3 Books Etc
  • Issue 5 Books Etc
  • Issue 7 Books Etc
  • Issue 9 Books Etc
  • Issue 11 Books Etc
  • Issue 13 Books Etc
  • Issue 15 Books Etc
  • Issue 17 Books Etc
  • Issue 19 Books Etc
  • Issue 21 Books Etc
  • Issue 22 Books Etc
  • Issue 23 Books Etc
  • Issue 25 Books Etc
  • Issue 27 Books Etc
  • Issue 29 Books Etc
  • Issue 31 Books Etc
  • Issue 36 Books Etc
  • Issue 38 Books Etc

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