Almanac Book Review: Back to Broady

 

 

 

Insuring the future by going Back to Broady

 

Caroline van de Pol and I were born five days and 200 kilometres apart.

 

We share many cultural timepoints: Catholic childhoods with Sunday Mass, neighbourhood cricket and footy matches on the road, David Essex, light blue Levi’s cords, adolescent existential angst, check-out chick after-school jobs, free University, marriage, great great loss and waking up in our fifties wondering how we got here.

 

Perhaps, most significantly, we also share an upbringing in 1960s-housing commission areas in families living with generational poverty and trauma, and all that follows from that.

 

Back to Broady is van de Pol’s honest, loving, and oftentimes harrowing account of growing up in the poor, working class, very Irish Catholic Egan family of ten in Broadmeadows, a much-maligned suburb of Melbourne.

 

In McIvor Street, people existed in survival mode – the future was the next day and much time was spent agonising about what resources were needed to get there.   And, there was the message that you must never get above your station.  Dreaming big was for others.

 

But it was also a place of great humanity and social capital. When a disproportionate number of tragedies seemed to befall those who could least afford another blow– especially the Egan’s beloved neighbours, the Gleesons –  the door was always open as Caroline’s dad Jimmy offered a compassionate ear around the kitchen table alongside large bottles of beer and strong cigarettes.

 

Valerie and Jimmy Egan adored each other and their constantly growing brood. But there was never enough money or space for the six boys and two girls.   Any type of work was gratefully taken up with Jimmy often working several part time jobs and Valerie working as much as she could handle.  Life was hard work.

 

Van de Pol, the oldest of the two girls came to resent her mum’s never-ending need for more help as Valerie struggled with pregnancies, babies and declining physical and mental health which could never be fixed.

 

Caroline – Cally as her family called her – often wondered when she would get a break, when it would be her turn to be noticed. And why nothing she did was ever good enough for her mum and why saying her prayers every night didn’t seem to ever make things better.

 

Cally loved her only sister Margie who she thought was the pretty one and who was destined for something special. Van de Pol fretted constantly about her own circumstances, secretly hoping that her love of reading and writing would one day be the means for her escape.

 

Caroline got her passport out of Broady, but only geographically. Margie’s chaotic and devastating descent into mental illness meant even as a young wife and new mother, van de Pol was never able to surrender the family responsibilities she had no choice but to take on as a child.

 

The book is written in a measured well-paced tone, which as the reader you are grateful for especially when a stunning paradiddle of horrific events seem to happen so fast one after the other that you need to stop, catch your breath and have a howl.

 

These are not fictitious characters from Cloudstreet. These are real people experiencing real events that for some were not survivable.

 

Kenneth Lonergan’s Academy Award winning film Manchester by the Sea asks:  How much can the human spirit bear? In Back to Broady, van de Pol’s retelling of her family’s history asks the same question and reveals gently that we all have our breaking point be it spiritually or physically.

 

Recently there has been a run of memoirs from writers who are burdened by their life stories – they need to get them out to try to understand who they had become, from what they had endured.  Jimmy Barnes, Madga Szubanski and Jeanette Winterson come to mind.

 

Back to Broady is one such book and van de Pol admits this too: “This story was a long time in the telling and there were times when I abandoned it because it was too hard or too overwhelming to write…I guess I was trying to make sense of it all. And when I read Maya Angelou’s quote ‘there is no agony like bearing an untold story inside you’, I agreed it was better out than in”.

 

I met Caroline Egan in 1980, 18-year-old nascent journalists enrolled at RMIT.  We clicked immediately – two vulnerable souls who had grown up without a safety net, not believing they had been chosen to sit alongside the daughters, sons and nephew of the powerful and the elite in this select course.

 

Over the years I came to know that my friend’s life had not been easy. I knew she had lost too many family members too young in very sad circumstances.  But it is a testament to her courage, resilience, lack of victimhood and her upbringing that I never really knew.  Her story had not become her story.

 

Back to Broady is at times hard going as you become emotionally invested in the lives of the Egan and Gleeson families. But, even though turning the page can sometimes fill you with trepidation, you can’t help yourself: you become desperate to find out what happens next and you want it to be good news.

 

The Epilogue – included on the advice of featured childhood friend and neighbour Nick Gleeson – is welcomed and provides much needed emotional closure for the reader.  Life goes on it tells us.

 

Today, with her husband and partner of over 30 years, Jon van de Pol, her three strapping, emotionally intelligent sons, a successful career in journalism and communications, and long-term position as Vice-President Blind Sports Victoria, there is no doubt that although it may have taken over four decades, but little Cally Egan’s prayers have finally been answered.

 

Back to Broady: A Memoir of Growing Up in Broadmeadows by Caroline van der Pol, Ventura Press.

(An edited version of this review was originally published in The Australian Saturday Review 29 July 2017)

 

Comments

  1. Paul Young says:

    Unless I’ve got the wrong ‘Egan family’ I think Caroline’s family use to run the Kent Hotel in Carlton in the early 1980’s. I use to go there quite a lot. Paul Egan played for Yarraville and would help run the pub. A lot of the Brunswick lads would go to the ‘Kent’ in those days.

  2. Brilliant Tess.

    No sense of entitlement in these stories. No searching desperately to be called a victim. Just people who bravely soldiered on. Perhaps life was simpler (though I doubt it). Perhaps people like Cally mastered resilience. Lots of lessons in that.

  3. Thanks Paul and Dips. Yes, we did enjoy a relatively short stint at The Kent and yes, Paul Egan and the other five brothers introduced a few footballers to the pub. Grateful for Tess and John sharing the story with Almanac followers and I’m now a devotee.

  4. I worked in Broadmeadows a couple of times and largely it was one of the highlights of my career. It wasn’t because I had a high paying job or one with great status, I worked in the community sector there.
    What got me and what I will always remember are the Broady people. Sure there were a few who I would happily never cross paths with again but they were in the vast minority. The strength of spirit, the generosity and the overall willingness of most Broady people to help others was so striking.
    When I left my last job in Broady a voluntary community group asked if I could come round and see them before I went. They gave me a pen as a farewell gift that I treasure to this day, but I treasured even more the comments they made when giving it to me. One that I recall is them saying that you are on that group with the police, public servants, council and others? Well they were all there but you were the one that listened to and respected what we had to say and treated us like equals!
    My career now spans 40+ years and the Broady people are still close to my heart!

  5. Onya John. Living, loving, learning and leaving a legacy.

  6. David Henricus says:

    Will it be a badge of honour one day to say you came from Broady? Or are we already there? If you grew up there and have gone on to a successful career, then other people feel this is special. If you became a teacher after spending 4-6 years at Glenroy High or Broady West Tech and then went on to teach, doctor, entertain … is that so different to someone doing the same from Box Hill or Bentleigh? The ‘struggle town’ stigma of Broadmeadows crowns such ‘amazing’ achievements. As one employer I had said, “when I conduct employment interviews I carefully check their school achievements. Many are high fliers gaining A’s or Dux distinctions. I am really interested in those who interview well yet achieved only passing grades throughout their Secondary and Tertiary education. These people may not be gifted but they know the ‘struggle’ and have come out, better, on the other side.”

Leave a Comment

*