Stan Denham is a baby-boomer newspaperman who lived in Australia, Iraq and England as a child. In the early 1970s, before he had a chance to grow up, he became a tabloid journalist and a long period of arrested development followed, broken only by stints as crime reporter on The Sydney Morning Herald and press secretary to a minister in the cabinet of long-serving New South Wales Labor Premier Neville Wran, a wonderful pragmatist and one of the early architects of Tony Blair-style 'new Labour/Labor' politics. Stan is hopeless at cricket but loves rugby and played rugby league (poorly) until he was 37. A few years ago, he was asked to write about surfing for Sydney's The Daily Telegraph, a job that entailed going to the beach on company time and trying out new surfboards designed for old fat blokes. On reflection, he's glad he's never had a proper job. Below Stan remembers the impact on him of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.
Stan Denham on To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
I must admit I've read better books, and ones that might elicit an interested and inquisitive cocked eyebrow in polite party conversation instead of eyeballs rolled towards the ceiling, but without doubt the book that served up real stirrings of understanding in my life was Harper Lee's semi-autobiographical classic, To Kill a Mockingbird.
Despite its being required high-school reading, it was devoured by me in one go and thus also introduced the strange notion that happiness could be found not only on a three-foot wave at Bondi Beach, or through the quick fling of a rugby ball, but also in turning a page (unlike with J.D. Salinger's overwrought The Catcher in the Rye, which only served as literary Mogadon).
I loved the book so much that I read it a second time soon afterwards, by torchlight on some nights... and then I got it. Or rather, I got what it meant for me: the story about small-town American life in the deep south had some resonance, given that the same types of prejudices were often still evident in the small-town Australia of the early 1970s, and it certainly got me thinking about what it might mean to suffer real discrimination.
Lee's focus was on a coming of age, on tolerance (or a lack of it), judgement and, most of all, courage: the courage to stand up for what deep down you know is right, no matter what you've been taught to believe; the courage to stand up for yourself; the courage to give the school bully a good smack in the mouth; the courage to speak up for your fellow man (or your fellow boy, as was the case here) when he can't, and the courage to fight your own demons before you look for them in others.
To be honest, I don't remember a lot of the detail of the book - except for Mrs Dubois' morphine addiction, which was doubly fascinating because without it, she might easily have been my own grandmother (who became tipsy after a single glass of green ginger wine).
That's because what truly rocked me, and so captivated me, was the complete and utter powerlessness of Atticus Finch's poor black client Tom Robinson, the accused (but innocent) rapist, who seemed doomed to a date with the executioner from the first mention of his name... even though I couldn't put a name to whatever it was I was feeling. I did know, however, that it was terribly unfair. I wanted the good people of that all-white Alabama jury to set Robinson free, because surely the same laws based on notions of English justice that say no man is above the law, not even the King of England, also applied to the people of Maycomb County, and would have to triumph in the end. Of course, they didn't and it was shocking for a 15-year-old to have no happy ending and ingrained belief challenged. I even held out a secret hope that on the second reading, magically, somehow, the story would change.
'For sure,' I thought, 'If I'd been on that jury, I would have set him free.' But until then, I don't think I'd ever been confronted with how extremes of consequence could result from wrong actions, or had any understanding of true powerlessness, even when I was dropped from the school footy team after a quick-stepping, fleet-footed opposition five-eighth saw endless short-side opportunities to turn me into a human turnstile, or when I'd actively or passively joined in to exclude someone from our group.
In the United States, where many educators include this book on their curricula, there have been complaints not only about the tone of the book but also, bizarrely (and because of its context), about the use of the word 'nigger'. But surely, that is the whole point.
And I say if a book can help frame the ideas of tolerance and social justice, and begin to form an until then abstract concept of action-and-consequence in the mind of a rowdy and self-centred teenager given to sins of both omission and commission, it's more than achieved what Harper Lee intended.
Which is doubtless why it's still recommended or required reading for millions of schoolkids all over the English-speaking world - from London to Sydney, New York to Delhi, Vancouver to Auckland, and so on.
I've often wondered, too, given the changing, multi-racial face of the new Australia, whether that book, read as it was by many thousands of Aussie kids, might have made any difference to how this place has evolved in recent years.
When I was young, no one of any race, creed or colour was ever turned away from my parents' home, or made to feel unwelcome, or ever refused a seat at the dinner table on a cold night. But when we were alone there was always that slightly sniffy, Anglo-Celtic undercurrent of superiority that, mostly left unsaid, made it clear that no matter how good or nice anyone else was, our whiteness, and particularly our Anglo-Celtic whiteness, made us different and somehow better. I'm not sure I was ever convinced of that, but if it was there under the surface, Lee's book certainly changed it and put a lid on it once and for all.
Thankfully, many of those attitudes also changed in my Australia of the decades that followed, as waves of immigrants arrived from southern Europe, the Middle East, China and South-East Asia, the Pacific Islands, Latin America, the Indian subcontinent, and now Africa. In the mostly-white Australia of the late 60s and early 70s, the idea of a multi-cultural, multi-racial society was only beginning to take fruit, but it arrived kicking and screaming, and at various stages it has looked in danger of withering on the vine.
Yet, for all the problems we have had here of late, they are minor compared to the stuff that goes on elsewhere in the world. Skin colour seems to take a back seat to voice, now. Aussies seem largely colour-blind, but are quick to label anyone who speaks differently, or doesn't understand the nuances of dialect, or the real meaning of slang, or why you'd need to have a barbecue with your mates, or at least won't try to understand any of that stuff - because it marks them out to be slotted neatly into that nebulous category we call 'new Australians'.
A few weeks back, I had a team of tradesmen working on my 1935 bathroom. They were employed by the same bloke, and were all of Middle-Eastern background. The plumber turned up in standard tradie's uniform: elastic-sided work boots, rolled-down rugby socks, footy shorts and a blue workman's singlet.
'G' day,' he said, in a broad Aussie accent, grinning and thrusting out his hand. 'I'm Mo.' Short for Mohammed, that is.
A bit later, from my spot over the bathroom drainhole, I heard Mo and Sam, the hard-working young Lebanese-born tiler, arguing in amplified, Aussie-accented Arabic under the house.
Then Mo said: 'Mate, there's the bloody four-inch pipe.' To which Sam replied: 'Fair dinkum?... Bob's your uncle, then.'
Later, over a coffee, Mo told me he was worried that things were changing. While he'd never had any problems being accepted, probably because he'd grown up in the inner-city and had been a good rugby league player, one of his cousins, a teenage girl, had had her headscarf ripped off a few months earlier by a gang of thugs who thought it would be a good idea to terrorize people who didn't 'look or act Australian'.
Never mind that she was born here and IS Australian, and that it really raises the question: how long's a piece of string?
But it's the thugs wrapped up in the Aussie flag, a modern-day mini-antipodean version of Harper Lee's lynch mob and that all-white jury wrapped up in their prejudice, who should be ashamed of what they are, not Sam and Mo and his teenage cousin and her headscarf.
Wrapping yourself in a flag and verbally and physically harassing innocent passers-by only makes the perpetrators un-Australian. Luckily, most Aussies feel the same way, and I'd almost guarantee that for many, some of the first stirrings of that kind of understanding came from a little book they read in high school.