As baby-boomers reach their mellow years, nostalgia for the 1950s and is likely to find a more realistic edge. All too often, memories of those decades are dominated by black and white images from newsreels and seventeen inch television screens, by advertisers and designers attempting to "retro" vinyl furniture and bakelite appliances and by the sounds of American rock and Liverpool pop.
In his latest novel Boys of Summer, Peter Skrzynecki challenges these stereotypes by taking the reader into one baby-boomer's personal story. While Skrzynecki's character Tom Krupa might have been Polish, Catholic, an altarboy and only child living in a Sydney western suburb, his emotional state is broadly representative of the children of a generation.
At a Catholic boys' school in Sydney's west, I prided myself on being able to spell the names of my classmates. It was a party trick to be able to pronounce the names of some. The Polish boys had the most exotic and I remember Piorkowski, Sfraniecwz and Przybilski very fondly for that reason.
While I should have appreciated better the contribution of Polish people to a growing diversity in society, in the 1950s we were not greatly aware of the benefits of multiculturalism. I was curious about the new food and languages in a suburb dominated by Lebanese immigrants, but many "New Australians" as they were then called, had tragic stories about the forces which pushed them from their homelands. They were understandably reticent about attempting to explain complex political situations to a fourteen year old ocker.
In the middle 1960s Peter Skrzynecki and I were contemporaries at the archaically named "The Teachers College" in Sydney. We were not in the same set there, so I did not learn of his childhood in Sydney's western suburbs.
Skrzynecki's latest work however, evokes the world of the 1950s and 1960s so skilfully that I could imagine that we attended the same primary and secondary schools and shared many experiences. Tom Krupa's story might be fictional, but its background material is precise in detail, accurate in its evocation of atmosphere and powerful in its creation of moods, fears and dreams.
Unfortunately, 1950s life in the fibro suburbs along the rail lines branching from Lidcombe and Granville and west of Parramatta was more likely to be hard, colourless, intolerant, dark and pessimistic. Whether it was the trauma felt by many war veterans and their families, the horror of the cold war and nuclear weapons hanging over our heads, the puritanical social mores or the incurable diseases, childhood then was to be endured rather than enjoyed.
Tom Krupa is an only child and the lack of siblings creates additional burdens for him. Tom has his own problems of adjustment but feels keenly the isolation of his parents and ponders their happiness.
Skrzynecki remembers well the naive enjoyment of unsophisticated local areas. Tom imagines that a small creek, probably badly polluted, is a wilderness full of potential adventure. There are wastelands like the former quarries and rubbish dumps being slowly converted to playing fields by local authorities. There are the pleasures to be found on the boundaries of your home yard, especially by swinging on the front gate. There are the camphor laurel trees and choko vines.
Tom takes the short train trip to the swimming pool, the "Banky baths". You can just about smell the chlorine and see the grubby interior of the red rattler carriage. In an eight-car train, perhaps two were set aside for those passengers wanting to escape the tobacco smoke. Doors opened manually and teenagers made a sport of hanging out as far as they dared.
According to the unbreakable rules of the time, Tom rolls his wet costume in his towel and wears it around his neck. To carry the string bag your mother was likely to provide meant ostracism and ridicule. Like most boys about to enter secondary school, Tom finds older girls dangerous but exciting. For Tom, it is Rhonda, sister of his friend Barry, who suggests the exotic and glamorous world of film stars.
The nostalgic glimpses of childhood pleasures are dominated by the gloomy world of the local convent school. In the 1950s these schools were under-resourced and over-disciplined. Conducted by a Catholic Church which saw itself as suffering discrimination, church schools aimed to make all of their "products" superior to the pupils attending public schools. Children like Tom Krupa had to cope with pressure from school, church and family.
The arms of this trinity were tightly knit and formed a world that was certainly claustrophobic and sometimes suffocating. Many stronger children rebelled early and few continue to think of themselves as distinctively Catholic. Tom Krupa's crisis arises in threatening behaviour by the curate of the local parish. Little by little, Tom experiences a significant betrayal of trust, which affects him into his adult life.
Perhaps only Shane Weaver's tragic memoir Blacktown captures the edgy atmosphere of Sydney's western suburbs better than does Boys of Summer. While Skrzynecki's novel is too close to the bone to be considered entertaining for anyone who remembers the 1950s, it covers important themes. It certainly should help younger readers to understand why the decade of the 1960s was such a revolutionary period.
Following the wintry 1950s the 1960s were a social springtime, full of light and hope and promise and opportunity. Boys of Summer is the most powerful piece of literature I encountered in 2010. It is difficult to know whether it will have a similar effect on readers who do not share the memories of Tom - and Peter. It is however, a novel that deals with themes that demand attention.