What next you bastard! Memoirs of an illiterate larrikin
Ken Hall with Monika McFerran
Memoirs of an illiterate larrikin
'My childhood was very short. It ended soon after my twelfth birthday in early 1952.'
Thus begins the most extraordinary biography since A Fortunate Life. Ken Hall spent most of his early life in hospital - at 12 he was moved from the children's ward to the terminal adult ward, where he was surrounded by old dying men. As a consequence he never learnt to read or write. The doctors insisted he was going to die but against all the odds he survived. As he grew older he struggled in the face of calculated cruelty to lead a normal life in a society which equates illiteracy with idiocy. His attempts to conceal his reading problems and his determination to make his own way despite continuing ill health make for sometimes hilarious, sometimes painful, but always compelling reading.
Ken Hall is the quintessence of the ordinary Aussie bloke. But there is nothing ordinary about his courage, strength and determination. This is a moving story, but not a tragic one. It reads like a rollicking yarn full of larrikin gusto, occasionally angry, mostly very funny and without a trace of self-pity.
Ken, now 61, is currently developing a national radio service for disadvantaged people. He still can't read or write. In one of those once-in-a-lifetime coincidences he met writer Monika McFerran. Together they worked for two years to produce this book. With great skill she has shaped the raw material of a life, while fully retaining Ken's unique voice. The result is a spellbinding narrative.
Monika describes the experience of writing Ken's life
Until I met Ken I had never given much thought to illiteracy. It was quite an eye-opener! Being such a bookworm myself, I found the concept of going through life without being able to read or write inconceivable. Apart from missing out on the obvious things such as a basic education, there are so many occasions when reading and writing are either necessary or desirable:
Simple pleasures such as curling up with a book, or reading a television guide or newspaper, doing the crosswords, searching out and copying down information, following written instructions, heeding warning signs, posters, notices or labels, helping children with their homework, filling out forms and applications, reading and writing letters and cards, doing research, checking receipts, documents and contracts, entering competitions, watching foreign films with subtitles, finding a name or address in the phone book, timetables, and countless other examples. What a different world it must be!
The analogy that came to mind was that it would be like visiting a foreign country where you can speak and understand the language in a very basic way, but are completely unable to read or write it. You would be left to figure out a lot of things through sheer guesswork. The biggest difference would perhaps be that you might not hesitate to ask for help in that situation, as most foreigners are tolerant and understanding when visitors ask for assistance. But being unable to read in your country of birth is another matter altogether. It is all too often something which is sneered at and ridiculed, making illiterate people feel ashamed and humiliated. No wonder they hide their difficulty whenever possible. No wonder they shy away from the cities and settle in rural areas, where people are more likely to be judged by their actions than by their education.
I learned from Ken that people could be very creative in hiding their inability to read:
- I forgot my glasses.
- It all looks so good. What do you recommend?
- I'll have the same, thanks.
- I'm too busy for homework, go ask your mother.
- Don't ask me to read bedtime stories, your mother is much better at that kind of thing.
- What are you asking me for? Ask your teacher tomorrow, that's what she gets paid to do.
- No point filling in a ticket, I never win competitions anyway.
- I'm too busy to read the newspaper. All the important stuff is on TV anyway.
- I don't bother with books. I haven't got the patience to sit around when there are things to be done.
- I don't need recipes for cooking. I just go by trial and error.
- There should be a law about printing such tiny writing on medicine bottles. You've got good eyesight, how many pills do I take?
- Crossword puzzles are a waste of time.
- Don't tell me the street names, signposts go missing all the time. Just tell me what landmarks to look for, it's much easier to find places that way.
Not knowing how a word is written often makes it difficult to pronounce and it may be necessary to rely on the clear speech of others if we want to use the word. If a word is spoken quickly, casually or carelessly, the illiterate person may mistake the meaning or even use the word inappropriately.
Ken went into a store one day and saw a sign for what he thought was a secondhand Commodore computer. When he asked the woman behind the counter what kind it was, she replied it was the kind of commode that you sit on with a potty underneath!
He was asked to play Santa Claus at the family Christmas party one year and disgraced himself by giving out presents to the wrong children. One of his young grandchildren became impatient and took over the job.
Spell check programs and dictionaries are really only of use to people who already know how to spell the word they want. Ken once wrote an official letter to a government department in which he told them that a photo would tell them a thousand words. He later received a call from them to say they had been looking at a potato for an hour and it hadn't told them a thing!
The relationship between us
Despite the geographical distance, Ken and I quickly established a comfortable working relationship. We had a healthy respect for each other right from the start and we still do - my high regard for his courage and never-say-die attitude, his admiration for my literary skills. Apart form our regular telephone conversations, I enjoyed his many social visits from Hervey Bay and the friendship that grew between our two families.
We spent countless hours doing taped interviews during which he answered my questions and described more fully anything that needed clarification. We also spent vast periods of time on the telephone. There were sometimes huge gaps that needed filling in before I could continue with a particular section. Although Ken had supplied me with a warehouse of information, many of the finer details were missing and at times I had to prod and pry to establish how he had felt at the time. It was also quite an education for me. I am and always have been a city person. Many of Ken's adventures took place in country locations - sheep stations, dairy farms, small outback towns etc., and I would often have to ask him to describe certain procedures such as shearing and slaughtering, so that it would sound plausible in the book.
Whenever I completed a chapter, I would mail it to Ken in Hervey Bay for his wife, Jan, to read to him. He would then call me back with his comments. Or I would phone him and read several paragraphs out to him to check whether I had interpreted something correctly. We had quite a few hilarious moments when we realised that I had misunderstood something in his notes and had given an entirely different meaning to what had happened.
From a writing point of view I found it incredibly challenging to set aside my own personality and put myself into Ken's shoes. Not only did I have to write as a boy or young man, but I also wanted to convey Ken's unique personality and character, including his manner of speech, his attitude and general behaviour. Many times I would find myself sitting, eyes closed, trying to picture myself in one of his predicaments and wondering exactly how I might have felt in Ken's position.
Writing as Ken I also needed to know the man he had become, as well as the boy he used to be, and there were times when his life seemed more real to me than my own. Ken often jokes that I know more about him than anyone else does, even his wife. I do!
On the whole, Ken always seemed very pleased with my interpretation of his life.
I will never forget the day he sat in an armchair in my living room, listening to me reading aloud the first few chapters of the manuscript. After an hour or so I noticed him becoming quite teary-eyed. When I asked him if he was okay, he apologised for being so emotional. He explained that I had managed to tell his story so realistically and naturally that he had been transported back to the time when all those things had actually happened.
He also said it was a great relief to know that the details were finally down on paper and he would at last be able to let go of the memories he had been carrying around with him all his life for fear of forgetting them.
And it was strange, he said, to hear it from someone else - almost an acknowledgment of everything he had been through. I think that in many ways it was been a cleansing experience for Ken to bring so much of his past out into the open at last. Maybe he can now start to put it behind him and focus on the present and the future.
I have been asked several times whether I gained anything personally from the experience. The answer is an unequivocal Yes! The whole exercise has been extremely rewarding.
This book is published by Hale & Iremonger. Copies are available from bookshops for the recommended retail price of AU$32.95 paperback.
Find out what happened after in the sequel "What Next You Bastard Book 2"
About the author
Ken Hall was born in Brisbane in 1940. He is married with four children and ten grandchildren and lives in Hervey Bay (Queensland Australia). His current project is to establish a 'Radio For All Australians'.
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