Jack Charles certainly started Born Again Blakfella with a memorable scene. As a beloved actor in Australia and noted First Nations activist, you would think that he would start by drawing attention to his achievements in both of these fields. But Charles decided to start his memoir with a facet of his life that didn’t lead to him getting glowing reviews in the newspapers:
“It’s the middle of the night and I’m huddled over, dragging my dilly bad, which is chock full of all sorts of goods—jewellery, frozen food, wallets and the like. This loot is the result of another day ‘on the job.’ Which happens to be doing burglaries. Or ‘burgs, as I called them.”
These ‘night shifts’ as they were, involved robbing homes in Toorak and Kew, some of Melbourne’s most wealthy suburbs. Melbourne’s Inner East doesn’t just make for rich pickings— these suburbs are also built on the traditional lands of Charles’ people, and he would often joke that he was only collecting rent owed.
To expand on this, Jack Charles is a member of the Stolen Generations: one of the many indigenous/First Nations children taken from their parents by the Australian government in an effort to assimilate them into white society. Charles was taken from his mother, Blanchie, at only four months. Blanchie would have a total of eleven children stolen from her, and Charles only ever managed to track down four.
The government sent him to a boys’ home in Melbourne, where he was abused and left isolated; just one indigenous child in amongst 200 residents. In his early teens, things looked like they were taking a turn for the better when he got sent to live in a foster home, but his once-warm foster mother aggressively turned on him once he tried to track down his birth family. This leads to him being arrested at 17 and sent to juvenile detention.
Despite these setbacks, Charles managed to track down his mother. In his late teens, he got involved with community theatre, which would set him up for a career on our stages and screens. However, he also got involved with heroin; which leads us back to his ‘burgs.
Jack Charles is both a brilliant wit and a skilled storyteller. Much like Brian Blessed biography, Charles’ memoir is written in an anecdotal style (with aid from Namila Benson), which makes the audiobook a wonderful, engaging listen. As callous as much subject matter is, Jack can tell it in a way that draws out the humour. (His explanation of the name Moomba, and why cat burglars actually prefer dogs both come to mind) He’s also far more gentle and forgiving—or perhaps accepting—of the horrific experiences he’s had to live through than you would expect. It’s not as if he’s without anger, but it seems he knows how to move beyond it to a degree.
It’s hard to articulate, and I don’t know how he manages it. I don’t think I’d have it in me.
But this acceptance of events-past doesn’t mean that he is not willing to strongly emphasise the casual racism and other forms of discrimination (as a junky and a gay man, in his case) that he and other indigenous people in Australia still face. And he spends much of the latter part of his memoir making sure we know it.
Born Again Blakfella is a gem of a book, and if you want to read one man’s experience as a member of the Stolen Generations, this is a fantastic choice.
This one goes under Rep for Bingo. First Nations, a member of the Stolen Generations, thief, prison inmate and prior drug addiction. There’s a few we could pick from.