Alf Taylor, God, the devil and me (#BookReview)

It was a complete coincidence that, as I was writing last week’s Monday Musings post on diversity and memoir, I was also reading a First Nations memoir, but such is the reading life, eh? The memoir, Alf Taylor’s God, the devil and me, is, however, both very much a memoir but also its own thing, which I’ll explain as we continue.

For those who, like me, hadn’t heard of Alf Taylor, here is a brief bio. He grew up in the Benedictine-run New Norcia Mission, Western Australia, escaping when he was fifteen years old. He then worked around Perth and Geraldton as a seasonal farm worker, before joining the Australian Army. Eventually, he “found his voice as a writer and poet”, and has had three collections of poetry and short stories published, including one also published in Spanish. He has given readings at festivals and events in Australia, England, France, India and Spain. The memoir’s Foreword describes him as the leading “Elder Nyoongar writer in Western Australia, as Kim Scott [who has appeared on my blog] is the leading younger writer”.

God, the devil and me is typical memoir in that it focuses on a particular aspect of Taylor’s life, his time at New Norcia from around 7 years old to his escape as a 15-year-old. We are talking the 1950s and 60s, which is horrifying to this 50s-60s child! As he tells it, he asked his parents, on a visit to the mission, if he could stay because his brother was there. So the die was cast, but very soon he realised it had not been a good request. Although his father and brothers, and his father’s mother had all gone “through New Norcia Mission”, and had become “good Catholic[s]”, for him it was a terrible experience. His story is one of unremitting brutality – including regular use of straps and sticks to keep the children in line, a diet that consisted primarily of “sheep’s head broth”, and inappropriate clothing – and utter rejection of the children’s Indigenous language and culture.

But, God, the devil and me, is also quite different from your usual memoir. For a start, and most significantly, it’s not told chronologically. Instead, it constantly shifts around, telling various stories ranging over his time at New Norcia. On the surface, the book looks like a bunch of, often quite short, anecdotes but, these stories are connected, not so much chronologically, as thematically, with one occasion or story usually leading organically to another. The end result is an impressionistic – if Dickensian – picture of life at New Norcia, rather than a coherent life story.

Many themes run through the memoir, the brutality, the sadness and loneliness, and alcohol, to which he is introduced through helping the priests with the altar wine. He doesn’t shy from intimating his own later problems with alcohol and he makes clear that many of his Mission friends had died early due to it. Another major thread of course is religion, and his introduction to God and the Devil, who, he is told by the priests, will always be with him. Early in the memoir, alcohol and God are intrinsically linked in his mind:

‘Taylorrr, you’rrre neverrrr going to make it in life. When you get out of herrrre, you arrrre going to get a flagon, find a shady tree and drrrink yourrrrself to death. All of you.’

Being so young, I clasped my hands in prayer and whispered, ‘Yes, Brother, I am going to do all those things when I grow up.’ I agreed with Brother Augustine because I thought that God was passing those words to the brother, who in turn, spat them at me.

Here we see one iteration of the memoir’s underlying idea, the confusion in the young Alf’s mind about religion – what it meant, who God was, how Jesus fit in, not to mention the role of the Brothers in it all. Near the end of the memoir is a surreal scene in which the sleeping Alf leaves his body and ascends to Heaven where he meets (good) Judas and (drunk) Peter. In this scene, Alf finds/creates/discerns a more charitable Christianity than he has experienced at the Mission (which, he sees as being worse than Hell could ever be).

“turn sorrow into laughter”

Alf Taylor is clearly a storyteller. He convincingly embodies his young self when writing about his childhood. The memoir is fundamentally political, but you don’t hear words like “invasion” or “dispossession”. What you hear is a mish-mash of history as young Alf understood it. White Australians are generally referred to as Captain Cook’s Australians and the government, Captain Cook Government. He describes a visit to the Mission of the “Native Affairs men and women”. When asked who founded Australia,

of course, at the top of our lungs, we all shouted in unison ‘Captain James Cook’ with such pride that even old Jimmie Cook himself would’ve risen from the grave and saluted us little Native children.

Similar, usually self-deprecating, humour recurs throughout. Taylor is one of those writers who can use humour to inject a sting in the tail. Here is another moment. Injured by a rock, he is taken to hospital in Perth, where:

I was in for the shock of my life – there were little Captain Cooks lying everywhere; there seemed to be a million of them, and not one little blackfella around.

And, what’s more, he notices that “the gawking Watjella kids all looked the same”!

However, Taylor’s experience isn’t all bad. There are bright moments. Footy is one, but best is when they can get out into the bush. It is in these moments that young Alf is happiest:

running free through the bush, watching the birds fluttering through the leaves or sitting by a stream watching a babbling brook hiss its foam at you was magic … to me, the bush was Heaven. Only Watjellas went to Heaven; we Nyoongahs, when we died came back as a bird or an animal, even as a newly formed brook to quench the thirst of other weary Nyoongah kids … I mean, to me, the bush was everything, my mother, my father; to me, in the bush, I could do no wrong; the fire of Hell did not exist.

He recognises his Ancestors as being the source of his true spirituality – and yet, there is always the overlay of “God, the devil and me”. How DID that fit in with everything else?

Early in the memoir, Taylor shares that the “best thing” he got from New Norcia was learning to read and write. These, he said, were “my weapons” and he devoted much time to them. He also talks about the love of books, and “sneaking off to the library” when others were playing: “a book was like magnetism to me and the pencil was my friend”.

I will leave it here. With its strong content and seemingly disjointed structure, God, the devil and me is not an easy read, but it pays persistence with gold, because this voice, while different from other First Nations voices, complements them and adds depth to the truths we are hearing.

Contribution for Brona’s AusReadingMonth2021.

Alf Taylor
God, the devil and me
Broome: Magabala Book, 2021
289pp.
ISBN: 9781925936391

Review copy courtesy Magabala Books