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Boyhoodlum review: Anson Cameron recalls rascal’s life in country in 1960s

Writer Anson Cameron: Boyhood mischief-making revisited with unwavering authenticity. Photo: Gary MedlicottMemoirBoyhoodlum ANSON CAMERON VINTAGE, $34.99

There was a time, not so long ago, before smartphones and that most dreadful of modern afflictions, helicopter parenting, when children were constitutionally free to roam streets and the bush. They took it as their right to use their imaginations and inventiveness to build themselves a world of devilry and danger.

Anson Cameron, a child in 1960s Shepparton, had an extra reason to abandon himself to freedom. He knew that come his early teens, his childhood would end “with me being handed a sports coat and a tie and riding off to a faraway castle for singular young people called Geelong Grammar”.

And so he became, in his own telling, a “combative, insidious, dishonest and a vindictive vandal who needed violence visited upon him by someone who knew the line where a kicking turns from altruism to harm”.

This seems harsh self-judgment. Young Anson, as he emerges from Cameron’s take-no-prisoners memoir, Boyhoodlum: Memoirs of a Devious Childhood, is an indulged little scoundrel, but to those of us raised in the bush last century, his adventures in the cause of discovering a world and experience beyond adults – and causing havoc in the effort – were not atypical.

Armed with a shanghai, a smart-arse attitude and a squad of mates foolish enough to follow him into madcap exploits (causing them, regularly, to take the rap when things go wrong), young Anson is a middle-class country-town version of Ginger Meggs​ – or Huck Finn or perhaps a Hunter S. Thompson at eight years of age – on steroids.

There are actual country town hoodlums here, but they are older than Anson and they scare and repel this boy who is destined for finer things, at least until one of them, intent on leading his sister into sins of the flesh, calls him Tiger and bribes him at Shepparton’s bowling alley with milkshakes and lollies.

Anson is, in fact, a more interesting and finely drawn character than your average skinned-knee urchin. He plays chess, and spends much of his time reading anything he can get his hands on, and so brings to his gang a superior imagination for the business of mischief.

Still, he blows up his family’s TV, tries teachers’ patience beyond limits, bombs the neighbourhood with stored bottles of his urine, pelts a neighbour with her own stolen tomatoes, almost electrocutes an aunt, lies to police that he’s been molested by a fellow he has shot with a shanghai, and persuades a gullible mate to burrow into the depths of a garbage truck in search of dead bodies. He gets away with most of it, as kids do.

What is unusual is that Cameron, a man in his 50s now, is able to rebuild his boyhood through 332 pages of words that evoke the place and period and attitudes with such sustained authenticity that you are persistently jolted by your own misplaced memories.

His description of Jimmy Sharman’s boxing tent at the Shepparton Show – where young Anson talks his long-suffering mate into a cunningly fixed bout in the ring, then backs down, leaving his friend to square off against “a tough kid from Rumbalara, the war-torn blackfella settlement on the outskirts of town” – is surely marked for a classic spot in n literature.

The travelling members of Sharman’s troupe “didn’t fight a talent in a big hall once every few months like the painted champions. They were shift workers in a square-roped abattoir, poleaxing drunks and maladroit hulks and dancing away from the vivid assaults of gifted wild-men every night of the week,” Cameron writes, having already devoted a lyrical half page to the sound and meaning of Sharman’s drum, “the funereal heartbeat of sideshow alley”.

Here is the deeper layer to the worth of Cameron’s book: it freezes a period, country in the 1960s, clear as a panoramic photograph, through the eyes of a naughty, intelligent and rather arrogant white boy from a genteel family in a multicultural town.

He sees only as blurs the blackfellas and immigrant families (dismissed airily as “wogs”, whose family homes with their elaborate concrete statues of eagles and lions are the curious highlights of Anson’s own family Sunday drives). As he grows, he belongs to a gang of kids with Scots, Celt and Anglo-Saxon heritage. The other gang consists of Turks, Albanians, Greeks, Italians and Russians. “But really, why fidget with gradations of ignominy? They were just wogs,” muses Anson, whose father is a respected solicitor descended from the Furphies, scions of the n wheeled water tanker, and whose mother once modelled outfits in London for Princess Margaret.

Anson Cameron the man and author, as anyone who has read his books or regular columns in The Age knows, is a sophisticated, acute observer of both contemporary and its history. He has chosen in Boyhoodlum to leave his attitudes as a child so unvarnished that they leave an indelible, sometimes quite shocking imprint: here is where we were, not so long ago.

His writing manages to immerse you in a sharp potion of nostalgia, laughter, and eventually, melancholy, mixed entirely free of mawkishness.

In the end, swallowed by the other world of Geelong Grammar, the future bearing upon him, Anson Cameron, now a teenager of the ’70s, discovers the child who was entangled in the Shepparton of yesterday “is dead but for a few unplanned flashes a year, and even in those moments of reincarnation is a stranger”.

And so, perhaps, say all of us.

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