Reviews – Best and Fairest


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TD: Henry Johnston is a fulltime writer who previously had a career in media. He was a broadcaster and producer here at the ABC and served as a liaison officer and a senior policy adviser for the NSW government. A nostalgic read, a beautifully written novella about life in inner Sydney suburbs set in the early sixties, an era long gone, social history vanishing, and this is called Best and Fairest by Henry Johnston and it’s been selected by Clare as the book of the week. Clare good evening.
CC: Good evening Tony.
TD: This is a very different era we’re talking about here, a fairly unsophisticated…
CC: Yes, it’s an era that I didn’t really know because I wasn’t here during that time. It’s a novella 142 pages. It’s through Valentine Press. And yes it’s about Rugby football or footy in the early Sydney suburbs. You will be surprised that I’m reviewing a book about football, but it’s a little bit different and it was a time when money was scarce, unemployment, poverty was enmeshed into the souls of the families. It’s not just about the diverse families, it’s the social mores of the time, and the lives of 13 under-fourteen year olds vying to play in the South Rabbitohs and Newtown Blue Bags. It’s about the Aboriginals who leave Walgett and have just come to live in Redfern, trying to fit in. It’s about the beer carts, I can’t believe that – this is the early sixties. Beer carts trawling the city driven by giant Clydesdales, and young boys dreaming, mostly Anglo Saxons and Aboriginals as well, dreaming of escaping the toolsheds and the factories for a more meaningful life. At 14 the majority of boys and girls left school for the workforce and, it’s hard to believe this, only 55 years ago, storkers, they dreamt of holidays by the sea or winning the Sydney Opera House lottery – it was being built at that time. These were the underbelly subculture, and long before the Inner West was gentrified. I mean it’s unbelievable to image today, houses, I don’t think you could find under one million.
TD: That’s true.
CC: Isn’t it, it’s ironic. So Henry Johnston has written of Sydney’s bygone era. It’s interesting also linguistically because slowly the Aussie vernacular is dying out. I was just talking about that with a friend earlier and they were saying you’d probably have to go to the country now for the real…
TD: Well it’s become a very nationalistic sound we have now because in the past I don’t think there was national media very much. It’s only been really in the last 15 years that we’ve had programs that have gone coast to coast. And that’s part of it.
CC: Yes, well, this is about the families whose common denominator was the Sunday footy game when they’d all go to the Redfern oval and, y’know, go there with families. It was a very big social event. It was a time of innocence. And I love the psychological insights into the 13 boys, how some turned to triumph and others to tragedy. There’s one, for instance, Ken Casey, he’s a bit of a loafer at school, a bit of a larrikin I guess, but he hides a secret. He’s a boy soprano. And when Paul Robeson comes to Sydney and sings for the families at the Sydney Opera House who were building it, Ken, now a tenor, sang with him. There’s Jimmy Bomer from Walgett whose Aunties were part of the Stolen Generation. Look it’s a passionate read, a fervent read, that weaves history throughout. A great nostalgic read.
TD: Yeah, a passionate, fervent read of social mores in the early sixties in Australia. It’s a novella that relies on hundreds of anecdotes from the past, not just about the footy, but it also encompasses Aboriginality and the Stolen Generation – all sorts of issues relating to that. It’s called Best and Fairest, and that is Henry Johnston’s book. It’s in paperback and it’s out and about now for about $18. Clare, thanks so much for that and we’ll see you on Friday.
CC: I’ll see you Friday night.
TD: Book of the Week. Clare Calvet.

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