Jimmy Barnes’s brave and disturbing memoir ends before the start of his rock career, writes David Free
Jimmy Barnes has been trying to lift the story of his childhood off his chest since the early 1990s. He had abandoned the project twice when a viewing of the movie Snowtown impelled him to push through with it once and for all. “The floodgates opened and I couldn’t hold back the past any longer.” When Snowtown serves as a trigger for the remembrance of things past, it’s a fair sign your childhood was less than ideal.
This isn’t, then, a memoir of its author’s career as a rock star. When Barnes brings the book to a close, he has only just joined an obscure Adelaide band called Cold Chisel. Nor is there any other sense in which this book resembles the typical celebrity memoir. Most star autobiographers have nothing urgent to say; their books aren’t driven by the impulses that make a real writer write.
Barnes’s book is, to a startling degree. He doesn’t just have a scarifying story to tell. He has a grippingly effective way of telling it: one that does full justice to the grim facts without overcooking them.
The result, Working Class Boy, is a stunning piece of work — relentless, earnest, shockingly vivid. The identity of its author is incidental, and in some ways even distracting. After all, you don’t open a book by Jimmy Barnes expecting a classic of Australian autobiography. But I submit that he has written one by revisiting the Dickensian squalors of his childhood in a spirit of near-fanatical honesty.
The book’s early pages don’t prepare you for what’s coming. The author sounds, for a while, like the genial latter-day Barnesy. He cracks some awkward jokes. He offers some thoughts about drinking and oblivion that sound, for the moment, like sketchy generalisations. Only later does it become apparent what Barnes is doing in these opening pages. He is nervously clearing his throat, finding the right tone to talk about the all-too-detailed horror show that only he knows is coming.
Barnes spent the first five years of his life in Scotland in a rough suburb of Glasgow called Cowcaddens. His mother was a formidable and sometimes violent woman with a “voice that sounded like an open razor, slashing everything it came close to”. His father was a champion boxer and abject alcoholic, with a habit of drinking away money that otherwise might have fed and clothed his children.
Jimmy was one of six: three boys and three girls. Many of his first memories revolve around hunger. He remembers worse things, too. One night in Cowcaddens, one of his sisters was dragged away by a stranger and assaulted. Barnes is hazy on the details — he can’t even recall which sister it happened to. But half-remembered horrors will turn out to have been a staple of the Barnes childhood, along with fully remembered ones.
When Jimmy was five, the family immigrated to South Australia, where their first home was a stifling tin hut in a migrant camp. By day Working Class Boy By Jimmy Barnes HarperCollins, 384pp, $45 (HB) the kids got to play barefoot in the sunshine. By night, however, they were obliged to return to their cramped and terrifying shed. Barnes is now 60 but he has forgotten no detail of how it feels to be a child living in an atmosphere of violence. “Every punch and threat that Mum and Dad threw around hit each of us as if we’d been thrown against the wall.”
Nor did things improve much when the family moved to a tiny house in Elizabeth, a new suburb on the fringe of Adelaide. “The fights were getting more intense, more extreme, and we were in more danger.” The children hid in a cupboard while glass and furniture smashed outside. Nobody came to save them. Narrating these scenes, Barnes builds a sense of dread. He gives each bad thing its proper weight. But he makes it plain that worse things will be happening soon. One of them happened when Barnes was around nine. “One morning, I woke up and mum wasn’t there.” Unable to cope, his mother had simply fled the house. She stayed away for around two years, although Barnes has a hard time recalling exactly “how old I was or how long this nightmare went on for”.
Nominally, the children spent this period in the care of their father. Effectively they raised themselves in a house that soon became a hovel. It was Lord of the Flies in Australian suburbia. Their father was rarely present and conscious simultaneously. Barnes’s oldest sister stole money from him for food. Barnes recalls getting
Jimmy Barnes’s gripping memoir doesn’t seek pity from the reader; opposite page, Jimmy, second from left, with his siblings Dorothy, Linda and John aboard SS Strathnaver en route to Australia