Phillip Stamatellis, Growing up café: a short memoir (Review)
Phillip Stametellis’ Growing up café is the third book I’ve read in publisher Finlay Lloyd’s fl smalls collection. Unlike the previous two, by established creators Paul McDermott and Carmel Bird, it is a debut work by an unknown writer. According to the author bio provided at the beginning of the book, Stamatellis is studying writing at the University of Canberra. What an achievement to have this work published, while still studying.
Growing up cafe is an enjoyable read. It tells the story of his growing up in his family’s cafe, the Radnor, in Goulburn, which is just 100km from Canberra. I used to visit cafes there regularly on trips to Sydney, that is, until it was bypassed by the highway. Now, if we go off the highway for a cuppa – and we do – it is not usually to the centre of Goulburn, but that’s another story. Back to the book …
Stamatellis has structured his short memoir cleverly. It is not told chronologically, and nor is it told in one voice. The story of his boyhood is told third person (“the boy”) via anecdotes that shift backwards and forwards across the years between 1965 and 1982. Reflections from adulthood are told first person, from the present, that is from 2014 and 2015. Whilst on the face of it the anecdotes from the past look rather higgledy-piggledy, careful reading shows that there is always a connection. There is method in the madness, in other words – and anyhow, as his friend says to him when he worries about his book making sense, “it doesn’t have to make sense, it’s not like life does.” Fair enough.
Things I enjoyed about the book include the nostalgia factor (the memories of Greek and Italian cafes or milk bars that I grew up with, though not “in” like Stamatellis) and the social history (the documenting of such cafes and the lives that surrounded them). Stamatellis captures all this nicely, from a young insider’s perspective. Phillip is, as far as this memoir tells us, the youngest of three boys born to Greek parents. The boys all grew up “in” the cafe, and they all worked in it from the moment they could. “I’ve lost count of the number of tables I’ve cleaned”, he writes, “I could do a three-plate carry by the time I was eight.”
The book opens at “Lunchtime, Summer, 1977”. The opening sentence – “The midday sun was stark in the street, and the small chirruping of cicadas almost drowned the rumbling of a passing Holden GT” – captures Australian country towns in summer perfectly, noisy cicadas and noisy Holden cars. It also reminded me of a song written in 1975 about another regional Australian city, Newcastle. The song, by Bob Hudson, includes the lines:
All the young men of Newcastle
drive down Hunter Street
in their hot FJ Holdens
with chrome plated grease nipples
and double reverse
overhead twin cam door handles,
sitting eight abreast in the front seat,
and they lean out of the window
and say real cool things to the sheilas
on the footpath, like ‘Aah g’day’.
Stammatellis, in his opening paragraph, describes teenagers in the cafe: “Cigarettes hung from their lips, the girls with their arms around their boyfriends’ waists.” It’s all so 1970s Australian – as is, unfortunately, the racism. “Thanks wog“, says a customer. A little further on is an anecdote in which “the boy’s” mother confronts racist graffiti on the cafe’s toilets, and then treats an indigenous person generously. All she says is to her son is:
‘Life is hard for some people but the sun shines for everyone, not just the wealthy’.
It’s not all serious though. There are funny, family anecdotes here too – brothers getting up to mischief, for example. There are stories about local characters, such as fun parlour owner Uncle Con, jeweller Ange Zantis, and the priest Father Sinesios, not to mention the challenge of serving the annual influx of an often unruly snow crowd. (If you are from this region you’ll know all about the trek to the snow through Goulburn, Canberra and Queanbeyan each winter). And there are the reflections from the present. These modern chapters round it out nicely. Through them we learn a little about where “the boy” is now, but overall I most enjoyed the chapters focusing on the past. They provide insight into a life now gone, and yet the lessons – such as tolerance, hard work, family cooperation – are timeless.
In the last chapter – set in 2015 – Stamatellis reflects on nostalgia:
I suppose at this very moment I’m feeling nostalgic and it seems that nostalgia makes a point of highlighting the good stuff and even finds positives among sadness – but my nostalgia is burdened by an unseen weight, a sense of entrapment …
Stamatellis doesn’t expand upon this, but I wonder if this little “small” is the beginning of something larger. It’s certainly a time and place that could do with some further scrutiny because we haven’t yet, I think, properly documented the experiences (and contributions) of that wave of southern European immigration.
(Note: I did find several typos, which is rare in my experience from Finlay Lloyd.)
Growing up café
(fl smalls 8)
Braidwood: Finlay Lloyd, 2015
(Review copy courtesy Finlay Lloyd)