Surviving Maggie by John Fingleton
In 2003, John Fingleton's brother Tony published Swimming Upstream, his account of how the two young Brisbane siblings took up swimming to escape their violent, often drunken father, and to try and win his love.
Now John has written his story of that father, Harold, and the brutalised childhood that mis-shaped him. Harold's own father was killed in a wharf accident when the children were still young. Inside four years, their mother changed from a lively, happy woman into a drunken, degraded slattern. She beat her kids with belts and wood. They were neglected and half-starved.
Harold lived on the streets, playing cricket, fighting and stealing.
Aged just 11, he was sent to St Vincent's Orphanage. The nuns slapped and strapped him; he was worked like an animal on the farm, poorly-fed and clothed. He almost died from an infection. Catholic charity of the 1930s gets an emphatically bad press.
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Back in the world, he was kept afloat for a while by the discipline of boxing and the support of friends. But he soon drifted back to street gangs, with their casual, cocky violence and their booze culture. He lived in a state of unarmed insurrection with the law. Brisbane police of the time get a press that's almost as bad.
He was declared a vagrant, raped by wealthy predators, struggled back to some level of normality, largely thanks to pretty, decent Dora, whom he eventually married. But when the book ends (where Swimming Upstream began), he's mostly a drunken, disintegrating wreck again.
A powerful, painful narrative, yet remarkably compassionate and sympathetic towards nearly everyone involved, it tells Harold's story rawly and directly, and at the same time works hard to establish the ambience of bleak mid-century decades: war, labour movements, Depression privations, the male culture of beer, boxing and laconic loyalty. Its weakness is the writing. It's clogged with adjectives; the author keeps pushing in to tell us how characters felt/looked/spoke. The re-created dialogue too often sounds like stage-speak.
And the editing is execrable. There are repetitions, grammar and syntax lapses, clumsy or inaccurate vocab. Whoever allowed such clunkers as "X returned to his private agony" and "Y turned sad, dewy eyes towards Z" into print, deserves a smack on the leg.
This is a story that needed to be told. Feel grateful that it has been. Feel disappointed that Fingleton wasn't helped to tell it better.