Books: Home: On the eve of the British publication of his new novel, the Australian Booker prize-winner meditates on home and away, on childhood, belonging and a sense of exile

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I HAVE lived in New York City for almost four years now, and although I think about Australia obsessively, whenever anyone asks me if I miss my country, I always say that I do not.

'Never?'

'Never.'

It was only recently, before my last trip home, that I began to see what a strange answer it was, yet totally consistent with a history in which the idea of 'home' has been problematic.

My home town was a country town, predominantly working class or lower middle class. It was not uncommon for boys to be kept back in the sixth grade for year after year until, their 14th birthday having finally arrived, they would stand up and march triumphantly towards the door.

'Where are you going?' the teacher would call.

'I've turned 14,' the boy would say, 'and you can't fucking touch me.'

Thus when he reached 14 and was legally permitted to walk out of our classroom, my friend 'Jimmy' got himself ready for his adult life. First he went to the dentist and had all his teeth taken out so he would not have the expense of dental work later. Then he went and got a job at the Darley Brickworks. By the time he was 15 he had new dentures and an old man's hollow cheeks.

My destiny lay elsewhere, 30 miles away, at the boarding school I had always known would be waiting for me when I turned 10. Geelong Grammar was like an Australian reproduction of Eton and it is no accident that I remember, 40 years later, that it cost pounds 600 a term. I was aware of what it meant to my parents that I should go there.

If you do not know Geelong Grammar I can pinpoint it lazily by saying that it was (later than the time I am writing of) Prince Charles's Australian school. A prefect at Geelong Grammar would expect to be one of those who ruled Australia, whether in politics, in business, or simply by virtue of being a member of an old and influential family.

So when my mother packed my case at the end of summer in the year of 1954, she was preparing me for a world I could not begin to imagine.

'You know,' she said, 'you will be mixing with children from very wealthy families.'

Having crossed class lines to go to school herself, she must have known something of the trauma that lay in front of me. Certainly, there was something about the way she said this that frightened me for I jumped up off the bed, embarrassed, irritated, not wanting to hear.

'I know,' I said. 'I mix with wealthy families now.'

'No,' she said. 'You don't know. I mean really wealthy.'

'I know what you mean. Wealthy. Rich.'

'Who?'

I could hear the voices in the Spare Parts Department downstairs, the cling cling cling of the blacksmith at his forge across the road.

'Who?' she insisted.

'Keith M -,' I said.

My mother sighed and went back to folding shirts. Keith's father had a gravel crushing plant. This, of course, was not the sort of wealth she meant.

We were a family of car dealers in a country town. We spoke with a broad nasal Australian accent.

I was about to make my new home in an environment which sometimes sounded more like the home counties of England, where boys called each other by their (often famous) family names. When there were two boys of the same name, they differentiated each other by adding the initials of their Christian names. Thus one would not refer to Michael and David Dickson, but Dickson M and Dickson D.

In the seven years I spent at Geelong Grammar no one would ever call me Peter. I was Carey. All this I had expected. My brother and sister had both 'been away to school'. My exile had lain there waiting for me from as soon as I could understand.

On my first day at Geelong Grammar I was assigned a dormitory which, veranda-like, had no window-glass. It did not shock me that this would now be my home. Nor was I surprised to discover, on my first night, that I would be punished for talking after lights out or not tucking my rug in the right way.

I soon learned the unusual nature of these punishments. Dorm Legs, for instance.

Dorm Legs meant that the offender had to crawl on hands and knees between the open legs of the other members of the dormitory who slapped him (as often as they could) with leather slippers. This punishment, which seems so sadistic to me now, was not more or less cruel than I expected life to be.

I knew it was now impossible for me to go back to where I came from, so I got on with it. Had you asked me was I homesick, I would have said no. I made my home in the place I found myself. I learned the language, discovered that jack-ish meant clever, that I was a CND (cheeky new dag) and that a TS was a Toughie Session, which meant masturbating. I was sometimes teased for my nasal accent, but then again, sometimes I was not. I was always bright, energetic, talkative, 'happy'.

Doubtless it was a stressful time, for I certainly liked the hours after Lights Out the best, and liked then, as I like now, the luxury of drifting slowly into sleep. I was never one of those kids who cried in the public dark of the dormitory. I always thought I had adapted well to boarding school life.

Yet 40 years later I look back on my six novels and find I have acted out, over and over, the theme of abandonment. And while I now feel blessed to see how neatly my individual neurosis matches the historical trauma of Australia itself, it is somewhat startling to begin to guess why my works might be filled with orphaned children.

I tuck my own boys into bed at night, kiss their soft sweet cheeks, and I can at last imagine my 10-year-old self - Carey in this narrow bed among these alien rich boys in a dormitory where the freezing winter winds slapped the canvas blind. I begin to guess the weight of this slender little boy's denial.

I began, each week, to write my compulsory letter home. My mother had bought me a green crocodile-skin wallet for this very purpose. It held my writing pad, my fountain pen, my envelopes. My initials PPC were embossed on it in gold in an olde English script. I sat at a long wooden table which still smelled of furniture polish, and reported the things I had done, the meals I had eaten, the sports I had played. Once I asked my parents for a photograph of my dog, and that was as close as I came to admitting homesickness. The letters would all be inspected by the master, but I don't think that had anything to do with the complete lack of news of my emotional life.

I was permitted to see my mother and father twice each term, and then at holidays. Each time I saw them I had become less like them. They said dehnce for dance. I, on the other hand, said dahnce. I saw my father brushed his hair like a larry (this is, in a 'common' way, straight back). I was already on my way to losing my first home.

My family worked so hard, such long hours, not just my mother and father, but my brother and sister too. They were 10 and 11 years older than me and were already in the family business. It was 1954 but the shadow of the Great Depression still hung over us and I was eager to assure my family that all the sacrifice was worth it. I made them understand that I was happy, that I belonged at Geelong Grammar.

What a lot of emotion I must have held trussed up inside my skinny body. I remember sitting with my mother in a car beside a gravel mound on a high ridge road beside bare paddocks. Next to us were the ruins of an abandoned farmhouse - a rotting gate, a lonely brick chimney, an orange tree, not much else.

'Look,' my mother said. 'Isn't it sad. The mother and father built the house, and raised children here. And then the children grew up and left home and then the parents died. Now this is all there is left of the home they made.'

I could not stand her talking like this. I blocked my ears. But I had already heard her, and in the chimney and the oranges I had seen, I now suspect, the perfect mirror of my own homelessness. In any case, such was the morass of feelings that my mother stirred up that I cannot describe this farmhouse now without tears swelling up behind my eyes.

And when you ask me am I homesick for Australia, I have to admit that it is not an easy question for me to answer.

Thirty-eight years after my mother packed my case for school - the six blue shirts, the three pairs of prickly grey flannel gym shorts, the long grey socks with the twin blue bands, each item labelled P Carey - I flew back to Melbourne and rented a car to drive to Bacchus Marsh. By then I was living in New York. My father was dead and my mother was in a nursing home, and yet I was still going home.

It was here that my family had gathered, here that they had got shikkered, played the pianola, talked cars and deals until late in the night, here that my grandfather had come to live when his wife had died, here that we had gathered around the black and white TV set, watched The Perry Como Show and a young woman called Elaine McKenna who sang each night on In Melbourne Tonight.

'Isn't she lovely,' my father used to say.

The apartment was the locus of all the family's pride, its anxiety, its vitality, its obsessions which mostly focused on the prospects and unsold General Motors vehicles you could see out the window. It was here, in an apartment furnished with all the grace of a waiting room, that my father spent his insomniacal nights, gazing down at the car yard, amazed at how far he had come in life, fearful of how easily it might be taken from him.

As I drove back into the little town, through the Avenue of Honour (each arching tree planted to commemorate a fallen soldier) I was not prepared for what I was about to see: the new showroom which had once been my father's pride, now desolate; the weeds growing in the car yard; the tacky Video Rentals store occupying the spare parts department where my mother had held court; and this single flapping wire which lead down from the TV antenna on the roof and passed through the dead dark window behind which we had all gathered around the flickering light of The Perry Como Show.

I drove past quickly and have not driven past it since.

It was on this same visit to Bacchus Marsh that my sister gave me an undated photograph showing Simon's Garage, a milk bar, a chemist's shop. It was this ancient double-storied building which had housed Simon's, which would later contain our flat. The milk bar and the chemist's shop would also be subsumed by my parents' growing business.

Some months later I wrote to my brother about this photograph.

'Dear Paul,

I'm sitting at my desk. It is about an hour since you called, half past two on a warm sunny day. On my desk I have a photograph of the main street of Bacchus Marsh, taken from the Courthouse Hotel corner, looking across to the chemist shop, the dentist's, the milk bar, and Simon's Garage. In the photograph, an armoured troop carrier is heading west along Main Street, followed by a soldier on a motor cycle . . . There is an obvious sweep of dirt from Gisborne Road into Main Street. There are enough marks on the road to suggest that a whole convoy has gone through. It is some time during the Second World War.

In the shadowy doorway of the chemist's you can see a man in a suit and a woman in a dress. The man is younger than I am now. Further along, next to the sign that reads SUPER PLUME ETHYL there is a group of three people. When I see the picture I imagine the woman is Mrs Hallowell, although I am probably wrong. Then there is Simon's Garage with its thick clustering of petrol pumps, like mechanical totem poles. The window is open in the flat above the milk bar. A curtain billows out of the window. It is either spring or autumn. The tree in front of the chemist's is in full leaf, but another tree in Grant Street - which you can see sticking up above Simon's high wall, looks almost bare, as does the tree across the street from the blacksmith's.

I've been looking at this photograph all week, looking at it with a magnifying glass, trying to see the faces of the shadowy figures in the doorways. I wonder if I was alive when it was taken. The most modern car registration in the picture is DL 464.

Why am I telling you all this when you probably know the photograph anyway? I don't really know. I guess because I was looking at this over the days since I returned from Berlin, the days when - I know now - our mother was finally dying. And I guess it it is the combination of the certainty of my knowledge (that the convoy had come down Gisborne Road for instance) together with the strangeness of the image - it looks so ancient, so foreign, so long ago, a place I could not have ever invented - that is so disconcerting.

I know this place so well, do not know it at all. I know how Simon's changed, how the chemist's and the dentist's and the milk bar all became the showroom where you would spend so many years. Knowing these things I feel that sad disconcerting lurch of time itself.

I feel also my colossal ignorance about my so-called 'home'. I have invested it with so much history and anecdote and yet I went away to school at ten and only knew it in the holidays for the next seven years. Looking at this photo I see that my 'home' is a foreign country . . .'

I CAN now see my history as a sometimes pathetic series of attempts to create a home. My life is marked by acquisitions of real estate and (later) their disposal. Indeed the fact that my wife and I now own our apartment in New York might be identified as one more symptom of this malaise, this need to have something I can decorate and lock, a home.

So my home is in New York now? Well, my home is where my wife and children are, I mean it, and when everyone in the house is asleep I sometimes kneel by my sleeping children and whisper things over their sleeping faces, incantations, prayers, spells that I will not repeat to you even here when I am being 'confessional'. This surely is my home - my heart.

As for my country, I am doing what I have always done. I am living in the midst of foreigners, not being homesick. It is a well-rehearsed strategy, and I am good at it. But as usual I can be disturbed by making the journey home.

A month ago I was invited to the Gold Coast of Queensland. The Gold Coast itself is a degraded coastal environment, one that could easily stand as a symbol for most of what is wrong with the 20th century. And yet I have loved this part of Australia more passionately than any other. I have had two homes in what one might call 'the region' and I love the great bruised thunder clouds, the intense green of the foliage, the mouldy fecund smell of the broad-bladed tropical grasses. It is so unlike the parched flat sheep and wheat country I grew up in, so unlike that other home, the country between Geelong and Bacchus Marsh. When I get off the plane in Brisbane, the muscles in my body change. My skin feels different. I cannot fool my body about 'home'.

For a while I lived on the other side of Brisbane, at Yandina, in what was coyly labelled an Alternative Community by its inhabitants, and a Hippy Commune by the local press. Ever since I left there in 1980, I have recalled it fondly - the beautiful physical environment, my friends there. I wrote a novel in Yandina and a great deal of the life in Browns Creek Road found its way between the pages of the book. In our bedroom in New York I have a small colour photograph of a red window frame in a stained timber wall. The glass of the window reflects a perfect blue sky and the clear spiky leaves of a tropical palm. This hut or cabin was once my home. Looking at the photograph always makes me feel good.

Last month, 14 years after I had left Browns Creek Road, I found myself driving down it once again. At first the road was different - more houses on the fringes of Yandina, a bitumen road where there had been pot-holed dirt, and then the road, to my memory, became the same as it had always been, and I was overcome with the most dreadful anxiety.

Through the foliage I caught glimpses of houses I had known 14 years before, saw the tiny trees had grown into orchards heavy with fruit. I felt as frail and nervous as as a ghost.

In the world outside, suburban developments had pushed across the land. But in here, it seemed, the world was older, but the same. And indeed, when I came around the community hall we had spent so many hours discussing - berating ourselves for our apathy, our inability to 'get it together' - I saw it had improved.

It was always a wonderful hall - a great platform raised on high bloodwood poles beside the river with a pitched central roof and then deep verandas at a lower pitch. It had no walls. The climate made them unnecessary. It was always a little like a long-house.

In the 14 years I had been away succeeding 'generations' had laboured on the hall. There was now a beautiful veranda rail and an arched slatted skirt for the underfloor, and both of these changes, coming as they did from Queensland vernacular and hippy-chainsaw architecture, had a charm and a rightness. The hall had become a beautiful building.

Encouraged by this we walked - I was with my Australian publisher - along the yellow dirt road up beside the creek, between the flooded gums, the trailing vines, over the concrete ford, up the road to two huts where I had once lived.

At the bottom of the driveway I finally recognised the source of my anxiety - I would somehow be denied entry to this 'home' which I had photographed and hung on my bedroom wall. I was coming back as an outsider, successful in the straight world, a celebrity visiting from New York. I walked under trees I had planted, trees I had cared for. I was disoriented, confused by what had been and what had not, and at the same time seduced, totally, as I always had been, by the beauty of the place, the deep dark rain forest below me, the great strong stands of yellow bamboo, the king parrots whose trajectory stays, in my memory, like a brilliant necklace strung across the sky.

I called out, from 20 yards away: 'Anyone home?'

Inside the hut there was shuffling, a man of 50 appeared. He had long hair and a heavy moustache, a T-shirt advertising the Yandina Ginger Factory. He had bare feet. Behind his shoulder I could see the tank-stand I had built 15 years before.

'I used to live here,' I said.

'I know,' he said. 'Come in.'

Peter Carey's new novel, 'The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith', will be published by Faber & Faber on 5 September, price pounds 14.99

(Photograph omitted)

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