Growing up in Boronia Park – With Pam

Jeff Shaw QC

It is pleasing to see Pamela Stephenson’s biography of her husband “Billy” on top of the best seller lists. Billy Connolly is a fine talent, an interesting subject and the book deals with his colourful life with impressive lucidity and affectionate objectivity.

The author of course is also highly successful. A quintessential baby boomer, born in 1949, Pam (as we called her in a time of universal shortening of given names) grew up in Sydney, attended SCEGGS Darlinghurst and the National Institute of Dramatic Art. Although of New Zealand provenance, she is very much an Australian product, irreverent, funny, and clever.

My quibble with the book lies in a hyperbolic, indeed ludicrous, description of Boronia Park, the lower middle-class mini-suburb of her upbringing. The author slams poor old Boronia Park as “arid”, “a sparsely landscaped desert, dotted with mound-dwellings of indigenous giant, red, biting ants.” There were, it is asserted, fierce magpies, striped goannas and funnel web spiders. Young Pamela, her two sisters (Clare and Lesley) and zoologist parents apparently “became accustomed to leaping over venomous black and brown snakes that lay sunning themselves on our path to the nearest bus stop.”

I can agree that this “wasteland” (an allusion which indicates that the author studied T S Eliot for the first Higher School Certificate in 1967) was, like much of Sydney suburbia, accompanied by a million cicadas, a friendly kookaburra and rotary clothes lines, as she says. But the rest is pure fantasy.

Boronia Park in the 1950s might have been a bit boring but it was not the grotesque jungle that Pamela describes. It featured a pleasant old style primary school, a small shopping centre and was about 15 minutes walk to a major retail area and cinema. Boronia Park is a small area between the mixed, sprawling suburb of Gladesville and the affluent Hunters Hill peninsula, just over half an hour’s drive to the central business district. The houses of Thompson Street, where Pamela and her two siblings grew up, were the products of post war municipal socialism. Ryde Council decided to build and sell a number of three bedroom cottages. They were bought by what was even then an aspirational class who wanted to see their children do well, by entering secure trades or going to university. Although political analysts have recently discovered them, aspirational voters are not an entirely new phenomenon.

In the middle of one part of the street, there is a small park. The Stephensons lived in a loop slightly off the main street. So did the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s Mary Valentine, and so did my family. Justice John Dowd, former Liberal Attorney-General, grew up in the next block. But Pamela Stephenson’s academic parents were something of an aberration. My mates at Boronia Park Public School were the sons of a psychiatric hospital nurse (now a clinical psychologist), refrigeration mechanic (now with an Oxford doctorate in geophysics) and the like. My father was a printer.

So it was that the adolescents of the area played (badly) weekend social tennis, (at the local Chez Nous courts) went to movies, the beach, Lane Cove National Park and, I think at Pamela’s instigation, put on the occasional back-yard concert, and we were complete swots at school. How jealous we were when the Stephenson girls returned from their parents’ sabbatical leave with tales from England or America.

I concede that in the untended little park in the middle of the street there was an ants’ nest. Indeed, although Stephenson does not mention it, there was also a beehive in an ancient tree. It was a bit bushy, but I don’t remember a single snake or dangerous spider. On the contrary, it was a rather safe and secure upbringing for a bunch of children who have done a diversity of things in their lives. Those children did have, even before the great man came to power, the benefits of the Whitlamite vision of their own bedroom, a desk and a lamp. And the park was a great venue for the annual Cracker (or Empire) Night. I wonder whether Pamela and Billy in their trips to Sydney ever have a drive down Thompson Street to awaken childhood memories. If they do, I am sure that they keep the windows securely wound up to avoid the prospect of dangerous beasties doing them an injury. It is a world away from the tranquillity of Los Angeles).