Claws

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Stephen Romei

Like most peo­ple, I have made close friends through work. Ex­tra close in some cases … but let’s leave that for the fun-lov­ing me­moir I’ll write one day. Tom Du­se­vic is not one of them, even though I like and re­spect him a great deal. We’re friendly ac­quain­tances. Per­haps it’s be­cause he spent time at the other place, Fair­fax, while I’ve been at News Corp for­ever. Or maybe it’s be­cause I al­ways thought he was a bit older, in his tall, hand­some, brainy way.

Well, the things a book can tell you about a per­son. I was wrong — not about the tall­ness (that’s plain enough) or brain­i­ness (school­boy Tom was a star on television quiz show It’s Aca­demic, as was his older brother Sam, also a jour­nal­ist), but about the age gap. Tom and I were born in 1964, though his ear­lier ar­rival put him a year ahead of me at school. More im­por­tantly, he loved the 1970s Aus­tralian rock band Sky­hooks, played rugby league, lived on Sun­ny­boy, Razz and Glug ice blocks, was rat­tled by those lit­tle bot­tles of foil-capped, sun­soaked school milk, learned a lot from an en­cy­clo­pe­dia set and re­ceived an in­for­ma­tive sex ed­u­ca­tion from the flat-shak­ing TV drama se­ries Num­ber 96. As did I.

I know all of this now be­cause I have just read Tom’s child­hood me­moir, Whole Wild World, pub­lished this week by NewSouth (257pp, $29.99). The ti­tle comes from young Tom’s mis­hear­ing of the phrase whole wide world. It’s a won­der­ful book, one that will ap­peal to any­one in­ter­ested in so­cial history. Tom writes sim­ply and beau­ti­fully, with hu­mour and em­pa­thy. He’s also qui­etly thought­pro­vok­ing, re­mind­ing us of a time when Euro­pean mi­grants were out­siders, a sta­tus that still trou­bles new ar­rivals the world over.

Tom’s par­ents were Croa­t­ian refugees from Tito’s Yu­goslavia. “World War II de­stroyed their youth, and war’s bit­ter and com­pli­cated af­ter­math split their fam­i­lies,” he writes. “It brought them to Aus­tralia, im­pov­er­ished, as dis­placed per­sons.”

But this is not the story of a trou­bled child­hood. There are some fraught mo­ments — Tom’s teenage mishap while smok­ing brought a tear to my eye — but this is a cheer­ful book. Tom’s par­ents, who set­tled in south­west Syd­ney, made a hard­work­ing, de­cent life for them­selves, and their chil­dren fol­lowed suit. Croa­tia re­mained im­por­tant.

It made me think about my fa­ther, born in Syd­ney to poor Ital­ian mi­grants. My sib­lings and I were not en­cour­aged to be Ital­ian. My fa­ther mar­ried a local girl — but I think his unI­tal­ian­ness was all about not want­ing to be thought of as a wog. The only time I ever heard him speak the lan­guage was to his mother. I re­mem­ber the fear of be­ing called a wog at school. It didn’t hap­pen of­ten be­cause I wasn’t Ital­ian of mind and was OK at rugby union, but when it did it hurt.

And Tom’s book is one that re­minds us how close we all are, for rea­sons near and far: I grew up in foun­da­tional Botany, which was where Tom’s fa­ther worked for most of his life, at the Kel­logg’s ce­real plant, the smell of which I will never lose. My fa­ther worked just down the road at a chem­i­cal fac­tory. I doubt they ever met but they sure shared the home ren­o­va­tion do-it-your­self ob­ses­sion. I didn’t know trades­men ex­isted un­til I was an adult.

Tom was close to his de­voted fa­ther but it’s only with his own ma­tu­rity, and par­ent­hood, that he has bet­ter un­der­stood him. A mov­ing mo­ment comes when Tom comes home from school to find dad sit­ting in the lounge­room, wear­ing a suit, hold­ing rosary beads and cry­ing. His mother, who he had not seen in 20 years, has died back home. Tom grasps this with the el­e­gance of child­hood in­tu­ition: “I’d never seen him like that; it was as shock­ing as it was com­fort­ing.”

To­day, Tom un­der­stands that his par­ents’ story is one of “peo­ple itch­ing to leave but hav­ing to stay”. I am glad they did.

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