Jimmy Barnes says of his writing this account of his early life: “the time I have spent writing this book has caused me a lot of pain.” He was born in Scotland, one of six children. His father was an alcoholic who drank away his wages, and the children learned to fear the violent rows that ensued when his mother confronted him each time she was faced with having to scratch to feed the family. The area of Glasgow where they lived was mired in poverty, and drunken fights and mindless violence, even amongst the children, were horrifyingly common. Jimmy, at four, survived a life threatening attack by boys not much older than he by running away as fast as he could. His friend wasn’t as lucky. The youngster was pelted with rocks and bottles and finally set on fire. He ended up in hospital for a long time and Jimmy still carries guilt for leaving him behind.
The family eventually became “ten pound tourists,” so called because that was what it cost for such ones to emigrate to Australia to become Australian citizens. Arriving in the “lucky country” in 1962 when Jimmy was five, things went from bad to worse. Dwindling money, fraying tempers and too much alcohol gave way to more violence and finally, despair. The mother who had sworn she would never leave them, left one night without a sound. The children woke to find that they were effectively on their own.
The loneliness of the young boy as he struggles to deal with the neglect and the chaos makes for hard reading, but Jimmy, the adult, tells the story with a candour and humour that imbues it with a sense of hope. Many times that hope would have been difficult for Jimmy and his siblings to imagine, especially as they grew into their teens in the hellish conditions of the Adelaide suburbs where drugs and alcohol-fuelled violence in the streets as well as in the home.
Jimmy left his home to join a band and that’s where his account ends. It’s not where his story ends though, as those of us who have listened to his songs over the years know.
Reading about his harrowing early life gives a greater understanding of both the belting lyrics and the softer, sometimes haunting, music he has produced. As Sam Neill writes in his own review of this book, “Remarkably, out of all this bedlam one of the best men I know emerges – a great artist, a terrific friend and – how does this happen- a devoted loving family man.”
This moving account of Jimmy Barnes’ early life is an example of how a terrible childhood doesn’t necessarily doom one to a life of misery. But it also shows in grim detail the enormous effort Jimmy had to put in to become the man he is.
Reviewed by Lesley Vlietstra
Working Class Boy
by Jimmy Barnes
Published by HarperCollins