Taylor, Alf. God the Devil and Me. Broome: Magabala Books, 2021. RRP: $29.99, 298pp, ISBN: 9781925936391.
In 2019 I visited the Benedictine town of New Norcia in the Avon Valley region north of Perth. The experience was nothing like I had imagined; I was disoriented and troubled by everything from the gift shop, the pub, the church and the massive buildings. It all seemed strangely mute and ahistorical and I only felt the full, and unexpected, emotional impact of the visit hours later. Though I already knew something of Dom Rosendo Salvado, its 19th-century founder, and his two tragic Nyoongah proteges, John Dirimera and Francis Conaci, I was prompted to look for more contemporary facts. An internet search immediately revealed the extent of the abuse of minors at New Norcia—perpetrated over decades by its priests, brothers and nuns. That history alone was however not enough in itself to account for my unexpectedly destabilising experience, and books like Alf Taylor’s life narrative God, the Devil and Me are welcome contributions to understanding the complex and multi-faceted reality that is New Norcia. Of course, God, the Devil and Me is a personal testimony, and the experience or perceptions of others may be at variance to Taylor’s.
Taylor’s residence at New Norcia was in the 1950s/early 1960s, and, now in his seventies, he is a senior Aboriginal writer. Refreshingly idiosyncratic, God, the Devil and Me isn’t a sententious final summation of Taylor’s life, but a spirited work, suggesting that there is much more living and writing to come. The narrative alternates between his mature reflections and the irreverent, feisty, voice of Taylor as a boy. That feistiness is shown in his love of football:
Football was a big plus for us at New Norcia. Especially when the season began. I loved footy along with all the other kids, but being the skinniest of the footy players, it was not unusual for me to get a buffeting from the bigger boys, but I loved it. I’d run into a pack, get knocked to the ground, pick myself up and start the horrible journey all over again. I just loved it. (39)
But one can’t help feeling the larrikin character of the boy, Bony Rooster, (his nickname at New Norcia) is a self-deprecatory, if necessary, mask. There is a recurring sense that there are profound, if more intimate, insights that the author chooses not to share with the reader.
Taylor’s parents were itinerant Catholics. His father had been a resident in New Norcia, and his elder brother was already living there when he entered, of his own volition, and with the consent of his parents. Once in New Norcia he lost contact with his parents. Mercifully, he encountered little in the way of sexual abuse from the monks and nuns, though he and his fellow residents—the Nyoongah ‘Boys House Boys’—were treated with a racialised emotional and physical severity. The Dickensian facts of institutional life are recorded by Taylor: the dormitories smelling of urine; the diet of unappetising food (sheep’s brain soup is a staple); and the loneliness—the Nyoongah boys bond, and support each other, but many miss their parents and families. While a resident Taylor envied what he imagined to be the freedom of those Nyoongah interned in the secular Mogumber Native Mission, though he later realises he was better off at New Norcia. He also notes that had he grown up in the apparent freedom of the Nyoongah living on the fringes in reserves, surrounded by family, he wouldn’t have developed the skills required to be a writer.
Plainly gifted, he was trained as an altar server for the Latin Mass. Here, a weakness for the sacramental wine nurtured the seeds of his future alcoholism. He developed an enduring love for Michelangelo, Shakespeare, and the artistry of Nyoongah footballers of the time too, but there is never any suggestion that the monks or nuns acknowledged his potential. The roots of this indifference I believe can be found in the origins of New Norcia. Dom Rosendo Salvado, while committed to working with the Nyoongah, had cordial relations with their colonisers; this suggests on some level at least a passive assent to their racist derogatory stereotypes of Nyoongah people. As a ‘Boys House Boy’ Taylor internalises an Augustinian moral framework with an emphasis on sin rather than redemption, and experiences what Catholic mystics would describe as a via negative—a stripping away of culture, family, history and language. The resulting emptiness is replaced not by access to God or a universalising European culture, but rather by what Dennis Haskell so aptly describes in his Foreword to God, the Devil and Me as learned ‘self-disrespect’. And in Taylor’s case, a lifelong dread of a judgemental, punitive God.
In the face of these oppressive moral and institutional apparatuses, revery and fantasy become for Bony Rooster an assertion of freedom. Taylor recounts stories of his imaginary friend Toby; though to use the word ‘imaginary’ trivialises the reality of Toby, who Taylor credits with keeping him from suicide. (One wonders if the figure of Toby is prompted by the angel who guides the youth Tobias in the biblical Book of Tobit.) On a deeper level, there are reveries/dreams which feature a radical and sometimes perverse recasting of figures from the Gospels: Saint Luke and Mary Magdalene are central figures; in one reverie the devil appears as a deceptively charming character; and, in the longest, Judas—with rope burns on his neck—engages in an extended deconstruction of the Gospels. In conversation Taylor addresses Judas in a surprising tone of gentle empathy and identification:
‘You, Judas, I do feel an affinity you and I know what it’s like to always be trampled into the dirt,’ I said softly to him. I was coming to like this man, Judas Iscariot. I found that I was looking into a mirror of myself, scared, timid, apprehensive, vulnerable, and above all, gullible. But I also sensed that he had an air of authority about him, and a tinge of bravado. (252)
These reveries in which theology, the history of Aboriginal dispossession and oppression, and the desire for a future are connected don’t admit of any simple explanation. But they are ultimately important intimations of the New Norcia subjectivity of Bony Rooster.
Philip Morrissey retired in 2017 after a career of thirty-seven years as an administrator and an academic. He is the co-editor of the essay collections Kim Scott: Readers, language, interpretation (2019) and Reading the Country: 30 years on (2018), and is the senior editor of Lionel Fogarty: Selected poems 1980-2017.