by Catherine Blanch.
In the summer of 1962, Dot and Jim Swan arrived in South Australia with their six children. Travelling by boat from Glasgow, Scotland, this move to the Northern suburbs of Adelaide was meant to be a new beginning in their lives, but hope gave way to poverty, alcoholism, violence and despair. James Dixon Swan was five years old when he moved to Elizabeth; it was the beginning of the family breakdown and a life that ultimate lead him to become Jimmy Barnes – Australian music icon, lead singer of legendary band Cold Chisel, devoted family man and best-selling author.
We speak this Jimmy in part one of our three-part series about his childhood memoir Working Class Boy – A Memoir Of Running Away and the theatre tour he has embarked on to share the songs and stories of his life while opening up a dialog about domestic violence and the need to create an awareness of this often-fatal epidemic.
Let me just say that my inner child, who also grew up in Elizabeth – although my childhood was like a sickly-sweet walk in the path compared to yours – wants to hug your inner child, and the mother in me wants to hug both of you for all that you went through.
“Well, thank you.” Jimmy happily begins. “I’ll take that!”
So many people who grew up Elizabeth will relate to your story, whether they were already here or immigrated from another country.
“There have been so many people that I’ve met that have dads that worked in the same factories and my father, or went to the same schools as me,” he says. “But, not everyone had the same problems as we did. A lot of people in Elizabeth had a perfectly good life and they loved it there. It’s unfortunate that the problems we had stemmed from problems that our parents had, problems that they brought with them.”
There is a specific mentality in Elizabeth, which many who didn’t grow up there just don’t understand. Of course, that predominantly comes from the parents and grandparents; how they raised their children as well the way they lived and viewed life at that time – and even now.
“Exactly. There are so many factors that determined the way that Elizabeth was built and shaped, as well as the perspectives of those that lived there.”
You mention that it was from watching Snowtown that you were finally inspired to write your book. I used to live on thar very same Smithfield Plains road where the film was made; my old house can even be in seen in the film.
“I used to live on Heytesbury Rd in Elizabeth West, and that street literally looked like the street where we grew up!”
From reading Working Class Boy, I now feel like I know way too much about you, and probably not enough.
“That’s the thing with a book like this,” Jimmy says. “After I read Magda Szubanski’s book, I called her up straight away and said, ‘I think I know you now’. But, after writing my own book, I’ve realised that you only see a window – only a part of a person. You can’t see how I really dealt with things in my own head.
“Although I did tell quite a lot, there are a lot of other factors that came into it. I think living in Elizabeth – especially for immigrants – it was a shared experience. We travelled across the world to find a glimmer of hope; some of us found it and some of us didn’t. There were more people that went through what I did than those who didn’t, and that’s a bad thing.
“One of the things with Elizabeth,” he continues, “and it happened over and over again, the wave of immigration that we had from Britain in the late 1950s, a lot of people came from Northern Britain from towns like Liverpool, Newcastle and Glasgow where ship-building factories had shut down, the post-war industrial boom disappeared and our parents came to this country with a lot of problems, looking for hope. Unfortunately, hope just doesn’t appear – you have to create your own reality, your own future. My parents came and their problems came with them and just swamped them.
“That’s the thing that was sad; it was supposed to be a fresh start. My parents were hoping to run away from the problems they had in Glasgow and start anew. I feel sad for them that they got here and still had those same problems, but they were 12,000 miles from home and had no support from their family or friends. They were suddenly alone – as were we kids – which is really tough for a family to divide like that. But that’s what happened with all migrant families.
“It still happens nowadays when immigrants come here,” Jimmy adds. “Not only do they leave from trouble at home or had to run from home or war, they come and they are alone. It’s a big thing for any family.”
Reading your memoir in the way that you have written it, and talking about what happened, you get just a slight understanding of what it must have been like. When describing the book to others I have said that it’s written in your voice so we can hear you talking as we read. Although there were a few moments that I cringed in recognition of things, it’s not a very graphic book when it comes to the violence and drug and alcohol abuse – unless you read between the lines.
“I intentionally left a lot of things open, partly so people could fill in the gaps but also because some stuff was just too difficult to talk about. Some of those things were not my stories alone to tell – stories of my siblings, for example – so I tended to move away from them very quickly and not dwell on them too long.”
Jimmy Barnes performs Working Class Boy: An Evening Of Stories & Song at Her Majesty’s Theatre from 8pm on Fri 25 Nov [SOLD OUT] and Brenton Langbein Theatre, Tanunda, from 8pm on Sat 26 Nov.
Book at ticketmaster.com.au. Click HERE to purchase your tickets [Tanunda performance only].
Images courtesy of Stephanie Barnes