Sunday, 11 May 2008

Hoi Polloi, Craig Sherborne's memoir, covers 10 years - from about six years of age to his late adolescence - by which time his parents moved from a small town (the name's undoubtedly false here) in New Zealand to their 'true' place amid Sydney's petit bourgeoisie.

Scots College, where Sherborne studies (he names it 'the Mansions') is here, as are the races at Randwick, the Western Line - boys out to row for a cup - and a small flat in Watsons Bay where Genevieve, the mistress (Heels, the boy's mother, titters at the appellation but forgives it for the sake of the social access the woman provides - her keeper's a judge) lives with her illegitimate son.

Helen Garner endorses the book in its cover, but this is indeed a cracker, a rip-snorter, a rum-roarer, a fine piece of writing. The boy's feelings in his early years are as acute as they would be later.

The miracle is that, even in short pants, Sherborne remembers.

Not every moment of every day. The book is episodic, like a collection of short stories. Each has its own arc and tone.

Together, they constitute a must-read for Sydneysiders interested in the times, especially the mid-70s evoked in the second half.

Sex, death, love, honour, betrayal. The boy is serious and intelligent beyond his years. His parents are quite uncultured, fretful of 'place' and absolutely preoccupied with status.

There's a wonderful scene when - it's a two-bedroom flat for a family of three - Winks (the dad) exits the bathroom doing up his trousers. Heels and the boy have been talking heatedly. Winks is suddenly suspicious and asks what the loud voices are about.

This paranoia, a fear of being 'common' (only plebs shout things in the street, have arguments you hear three floors down) infuses the relationship between the intelligent boy and his fretful parents.

The Mercedes in NZ becomes a Torana in Sydney, and the boy prefers to go to school by bus.

Diamond Bay, where they lived, is close to where my mum had a gift shop for thirty years, and many customers had apartments fanning out along Military Road.

The area is exclusive, but in those days you didn't mix. Not that we 'mixed' with anyone especially; dad was busy sailing and in business, mum and gran ran the shop.

The book - unlike Robert Adamson's memoir, reviewed below - does not touch on the beauty available - even around rocky Diamond Bay and the cliffs that drop to kiss the endless swell of the Tasman.

Sherborne is uninterested in the natural environment. It's his parents he wants to understand, and the book goes a long way to helping us get a clear picture of life in the 70s.

It was not all rock'n'roll and protests, long hair and dope-smoking in inner-city squats.

The two people are described in loving detail. From NZ, Sydney was their ne plus ultra. The book's title will resonate broadly, as it was the kind of word many parents got wrong.

The school experience is wonderfully correct and perfectly written. You are amazed at how clearly the voices of the boys emerge from the page. In one scene, a nasty character called Gary Blackwood is persecuting a Jewish boy. After he finishes, a prefect arrives and blames Richard Burns (the Jew):

"Next time I'll send you to the school sergeant." The prefect jokes to Gary Blackwood that he should save his knuckles for the regatta.

I see, hear and feel the anger and resentment Sherborne's protagonist experienced. And because it was Scots College, we know - the statistics prove it - that such boys as these would go on into professions like the law.

The book is a snapshot of Sydney in the 70s, a perfect 'imagining' to serve generations to come as a guide. It deserves classic status, like AB Facey's A Fortunate Life. Hopefully the sticker price - shown in the pic going down from $27.95 to $12.99 to $6.99 - will one day hold firm.

It would be fitting if it did (although admittedly this copy was purchased at QBD on the Sunshine Coast): with Sherborne you are in safe hands.

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