How an hour-long car trip changed Peter Carey’s world
I was 10 years old, soon to take the most important journey of my life. For the moment, I was in the little town of Bacchus Marsh, living with my parents in a spacious flat above the spare-parts department of P. S. Carey Motors.
It was there we sat, my mother and I, as she prepared her youngest child for boarding school, sewing my surname and first initial onto socks and shirts.
“You do realise,” my mother said, “that there will be many wealthy boys.” I heard her anxiety but didn’t understand it. I imagined we were wealthy because we had a Holden dealership. Of course, we were paupers compared to members of the Australian ruling class I would come to know – according to a plan made long ago at Eton College and Rugby and then transposed to those windblown acres on the shore of Victoria’s Corio Bay – only by their family names: Baillieu, Myer, Murdoch, Fairfax, Packer. “I know plenty of rich kids,” I said. “Here?” My mother laughed at the idea. “Keith Madden,” I said. “Keith Madden?” She smiled and did not tell me that a gravel crusher, such as was operated by Keith’s father, would not supply the wealth she meant.
So I went off to Geelong Grammar with my smalltown nasal accent, having not the least idea of the strange environment that had always lain there waiting for me.
So much was familiar about this one-hour journey. To the west of the road, the country was gnarled and folded into the Anakie Gorge and the Brisbane Ranges; to the east, in a magnificent eruption, stood those wild and secret hills, the You Yangs. There was the dirt track to the property where the farmer had bashed the maggots from the leg of lamb he later served my dad for dinner. Here was Balliang East, where my bad-tempered grandfather had kicked his 10-year-old son out of the car and left him to walk home in darkness.
It was the same road along which we had taken my silent elder brother back to school after his holidays. From him I understood that no-one would call me by my first name for the next seven years and that the masters, who he imitated so well, spoke in the sort of posh English accents I’d only encountered in Ealing comedies.
At Geelong Grammar School, I learned to say “castle” as cah-sel, not kessle, a betrayal of my parents that introduced inconsistencies of pronunciation that still linger. But the point is, I had left my home and would never quite return. I had come to sleep in a spartan dormitory with all the comforts of an open porch. I woke among strangers. I could not find a towel. I did not know that I was surrounded by kids who also missed their mother and their dog.
I see now, looking back, that I have made my art from a homesickness that began 63 years ago, during those long ago nights, in a dormitory of 10-year-olds where the canvas blinds slapped like sails in the winter wind.
Industrial Geelong provided a proletarian cloak to the immense privilege of Peter Carey’s boarding school (above)
The journey Bacchus Marsh to Geelong, Victoria The year 1953 The lowdown His new novel, A Long Way from Home, is out now.