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.