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As memoirs go, it’s a whopper

15 January 2012 1,154 views No Comment

IN the modern age, autobiography is a strange and wonderful genre. Or should we be talking memoir here? I refer to the unexpurgated recollections of H.G. Nelson (aka Greig Pickhaver), which, rather like the ”autobiography” of Dame Edna Everage, is supposedly penned by the writer’s alter ego.

Intriguingly, unlike Barry Humphries’s hugely successful and ever-evolving creation, in My Life in Shorts the real person behind the comic character doesn’t crack a mention. This is consistent with the character but also a bit frustrating.

Never mind. As for the veracity of it all, does it really matter? As the late British playwright Harold Pinter wrote in Old Times: ”There are things I remember which never have happened, but as I recall them so they take place.” Approaching this fairy story of a 1950s and ’60s Barossa childhood in a similar vein and with a more or less willing suspension of disbelief, this reviewer was soon sucked into the savagely raucous account of what H.G. calls his ”growing pains and painful growths”. This is despite whether the story is ”true” or not.

Beginning to root around to uncover his early ”life in shorts”, H.G. claims to have ”put the Holden ute into reverse and backed the wheels down the tree-lined driveway and on to the road of memory”. He can’t quite control the car but the results are highly entertaining.

A retired cemetery worker offered H.G. the soundest advice about how best to construct this account of his early life history. According to Tony (”Junior”) McTillet, now in his 90s, the past is like a ”bloody big outdoor screen that you see at open-air rock concerts or royal weddings”. On to this screen is projected our visions of the past. It is, ”Junior” said, ”a moving picture that borrows from our fears, disappointments and aspirations. If you made it all up, who’d know the difference?” Well, some of the people involved might but readers would be none the wiser.

My Life in Shorts is a rollicking tale of how a very different Australia from the one we now experience shaped a country boy who was to become one of this nation’s foremost sporting commentators. Once an aspiring footballer, boxer and overweight apprentice jockey riding horses saved from the abattoir, H.G. confides he still keeps in shape – just in case one of our top sporting teams urgently needs someone to fill a gap.

A rather slow student and awkwardly aspiring Aussie rules footballer for the Penrice Quolls and later the Moculta Parrots, H.G. also writes about his many siblings.

His brother Trevor, who loved being loose with the truth, talked through his hat and his arse at the same time. According to H.G., Trevor’s hat-and-arse conversations ”often made more sense and were more interesting than anything else he said”. His beloved brother could ”rhubarb on for hours at a time”. Eventually the Nelson family would shout in unison: ”Trevor, shut up! Just shut up!” Yet as H.G. records, ”this never slowed the flow of [Trevor’s] blithering piffle”.

Early on in this energetic and captivating ”memoir”, H.G. claims that the past ”haunts everyone alive today”.

Indeed, that is what the past does best and Australia’s most outrageously over-the-top sports guru, social observer and loud-mouthed heckler is no different.

The past casts ”an unsettling shadow” over his subsequent years, at least until March 1984 when, at the Dapto Dogs one Thursday night, his soon-to-be co-worker and outlandish broadcasting colleague on radio and TV, ”Rampaging” Roy Slaven, kicked H.G. up the bum.

Don’t be surprised if, in the next instalment of his fictional autobiography, the bold H.G.’s search for lost time – and his cleverly constructed remembrances of an innocent life that has not yet evaporated – begins with their legendary meeting.

MY LIFE IN SHORTS, H.G. Nelson, Macmillan, 269pp, $34.99. Sydney Morning Herald, January 14, 2012, Spectrum p. 39