There’s no stopping Thomas Keneally. No sooner have you walked into his North Sydney home than he is off on a cultural history of the land around his home. The land is owned by the Catholic Church, for whom his respect is limited these days, on the edge of a national park and near great beaches for the grandchildren. A good place to live, he says. “Close to the sin of Manly, not a gated community but very quiet.”
This is a Keneally joke against the Church, not known for its appreciation of contemporary glamour. Manly, a ferry hop across the harbour from Sydney’s opera house, is best known for its surfers’ beaches and the Australian national figures that go with that. “The rock-jawed lifesavers and the buxom Aussie sheilas,” as Keneally puts it. He prefers to call himself a “hairy-handed prole” but he protests too much. He lives in an understated and elegant modern apartment full of natural light and you don’t have to look far to find evidence of his global literary status. In the hall a framed letter from Steven Spielberg congratulates him on Schindler’s Ark, the Booker Prize-winning novel of 1982 that became Spielberg’s Oscar-winning Schindler’s List (1993).
Spielberg praises his friend’s humanity and while the director’s tone is pure Hollywood luvvie, there is rationale behind the emotional tribute. It is not just Keneally’s status as a novelist, playwright and prolific non-fiction author that has earned him the National Trust of Australia’s accolade of Australian Living Treasure, it is his capacity for compassion combined with the kind of intellectual rigour that explores complexity rather than tidying it up. Australians: Origins to Eureka, his first volume of a social history of his country, is so replete with detail and psychological insight that you can smell the convict ships, and it resounds with unsentimental sympathy for both the gutsy immigrants and the indigenous population.
“You’ll see there are many aboriginal artefacts around the place,” he says. “I’m fascinated by the collision between people who’ve been here for a couple of generations and the nomadic people of Australia. We began as a purpose-designed penal settlement and I wanted to know where people come from.
“My wife’s great-grandfather and my great-uncle were both convicts but they committed the sort of crimes that they didn’t consider crimes. My great-uncle was a Fenian from Ireland and he was given 10 years for sedition. We all know that one man’s sedition is another man’s free speech.”
Keneally and his wife Judy moved to their three-bedroom apartment two-and-a-half years ago after 38 years in the house nearby where they raised their two daughters. “Part of my childhood was in Homebush in Sydney and from there we travelled to the sea by train and tram, so the sea was always magical to me. We love Manly. But you know how old people say houses get too much for them? Well it did. Paint got blasted by gales, there was corrosion, the maintenance required was enormous, so we sold and found this, which is of more manageable proportions.”
He is 75, a small, round, friendly man who looks like a hobbit and pulsates with noisy curiosity and mischief. An Irish Catholic upbringing led him to study for the priesthood for six years. “That’s what you do if you can’t pull chicks,” he says with his big rasping chuckle. He left before he was ordained, ground down and depressed by the authoritarian discipline.
So it is intriguing that he lives within the grounds of the seminary where he trained, though he insists that the place holds no demons for him. “The grounds here are on a massive scale and the ghosts of the old ayatollahs have been driven out by the young – Scandinavian, German, Chinese, Japanese, French – who attend what was the seminary but is now the School of Management.”
Yet his relationship with the Church is fraught. “If you don’t go to mass all the time, you’re in outer darkness. The Schindler book was partly written to show that good will come out of anyone – the commandant of Auschwitz went to confession, that sort of conundrum. If I went to the bishop for a reference, I wouldn’t get one,” he says with another rattle of the laughter that is an antidote to every provocative remark he makes, and he makes a lot of them. He was a drama teacher and lecturer before he started writing, and you can hear him grouping words with an ear for effect.
Australia, from its convict days to the 1970s when it imported £10 Poms (Brits who migrated to Australia under an assisted passage scheme), has always been a dumping ground for the proletariat, he declares. “We got the people who were too bad for England and I get a perverse kick out of that. Many of them proved to be great people but they weren’t Oxbridge and neither was I. I’m a characteristic child of immigrants too but I’m fascinated that if you had a boy who liked cricket and horseracing but couldn’t understand Pythagoras or translate Virgil, you sent him to Australia.”
Is this the root of Australia’s macho character? “I suppose it is. Look, I’ll be in trouble for saying this but I’ve got to admit that we think we’re good losers but we’re not. It’s a national flaw. We blame our failure on some sort of plot or moral fallibility rather than the fact that the other side was better.
“It comes from when I was a kid: our heroes weren’t culture heroes. We didn’t have all these great filmmakers, great actors, we didn’t have an opera house and sport is the way out of cultural ignominy. Everyone was trained to be a potential half-back for Australia or open the batting but I was asthmatic so I’m not the characteristic rock-jawed Australian. Most of us aren’t, it’s a total myth.
“When you grow up in the southern hemisphere, there’s a tendency to believe that everyone in England is reading Hardy and Eliot all the time. I’ve got a theory: I think we all read like buggery because we thought you blokes were doing it and it was our only hope of competing. Whereas you never picked up Hardy and you were all in the pub.”
‘Australians: Origins to Eureka’, by Thomas Keneally, is published by Allen & Unwin, £30