📚 Jack Charles – Born-Again Blakfella (Jack Charles)

Read Jack Charles by Jack Charles

Jack Charles has worn many hats throughout his life: actor, cat burglar, musician, heroin addict, activist, even Senior Victorian Australian of the Year. But the title he’s most proud to claim is that of Aboriginal Elder.

I wrote my review of Jack Charles here.

Marginalia

CHAPTER 1: Stolen

Back in the day, Box Hill Boys’ Home had a good reputation as an open institution that housed the city’s forgotten children. But, as was only revealed many years later, it was a place that also housed forbidden, dark secrets; unspeakable crimes committed against the children placed in its care.

Despite being a willing learner, I was often overlooked for educational opportunities. Other kids would be taught things like geography, or arithmetic – which I didn’t do well at – while I was sent off to clean the quadrangle, or to spend an hour watering the gardens instead. Most of my assigned jobs would include quite menial tasks.

Though I wasn’t encouraged to be academic, I did have the benefit of one particular teacher, my favourite, who took it upon himself to give me elocution lessons. I think because I was Aboriginal he thought I needed to be assimilated. And what better way to do it than to teach me the Queen’s English?

One member of staff had a room directly opposite my bed. He was one of my abusers. He often came to my bed to do painful and humiliating things in the middle of the night. It wasn’t just me, either. He used to take one or two boys at a time into his room.

There was an older boy who molested me in the home. Thanks to my job as school cleaner, I knew how to sneak into the building and slide the lock so he couldn’t get in. That was a small measure of protection. I liked to be alone in the school. I knew how spotless the floor was, having just cleaned it myself, and I loved the feeling of lying there quietly and peacefully. My other escape from this boy was to go to the back of the school and climb the pine trees.

I didn’t realise until recent years, but the gym at Box Hill Boys’ Home is what sparked my interest in acting.

I counselled myself through those terrible times. That silencing of my pain and anguish led to a heroin addiction, which took over much of my adult life.

One of the best pieces of advice I can give to anybody struggling with the trauma of past abuse is to talk about it. It’s difficult to open up, but I try to encourage folks to reflect on themselves during those moments of suffering – without a sense of blame and shame. What you were subjected to is a part of your lived experience and, as unfortunate as it is, it happened. Come what may, you have to relegate it to a section of the old grey matter up top. Leave it there, until you wanna talk about it in a group session or it comes up naturally in conversation.

CHAPTER 2: Kinship Connections

I can’t be certain why I ended up with Mrs Murphy instead of Norma and Kevin, but I think she wanted me for herself. I’ve got letters written by her to the Aborigines Welfare Board, explaining that she’d become fond of ‘young Jacky’ and asking if I could live with them permanently. The letters don’t mention another pertinent detail: that when it came to fostering children, people got a bit more money if they took on an Aboriginal kid. This was another way the government enacted its Assimilation Policy.

I remember one particular evening, I saw a bunch of kids getting off the train at Blackburn station, joining the masses in the village. The numbers kept growing. The air was thick with tension and testosterone. The boys were all ribbing each other and carrying on, and it got quite intense. People started tearing palings off nearby shops, using other bits of wood and grabbing iron bars and just going at each other. It was like something out of a movie. I legged it out of there quick smart, before anyone could clock me.

‘Jack Charles, meet Don Bradman. Don Bradman, meet Jack Charles.’ There I was, minding my own business at the factory, when all of a sudden I was shaking hands with one of Australia’s biggest sporting legends. At the time I didn’t appreciate just how big a deal this was.

My Aboriginality was rarely discussed with the Murphys. On the odd occasion it came up with Mum, she would simply insist I was an orphan and that was the end of the story.

Connecting to culture and kin would complete the wonderful stage I was finally at in my life, after the damage done in the home. I’d landed on my feet and things were going well. As the old-style tram rattled heavily along the tracks, I was nervous and blissfully unaware of the danger of what I was doing. I had no idea at the time, but because I was still a ward of state, it was actually a criminal act to seek out my birth family. It was something you could be imprisoned for.

Over the years, I’ve had dreams of what would’ve happened if Mrs Murphy had accepted my news and bounced around joyously with me, holding my hand. What if she had celebrated my discovery, rather than punishing me? Where would I have ended up then? Instead, the night I discovered my blood kin, I lost my foster family. That night, I stopped believing in God.

CHAPTER 3: Comrades

I was released from Turana thanks to my RMS Glass boss, Alf. He’d called up Mrs Murphy asking for his ‘favourite little worker’, and found out I’d been sent away. I don’t know the details of their conversation; all I know is that Alf offered to take care of me. He was as good as his word and bailed me out of Turana that same day.

Feeling unwanted by the Aboriginal community, I turned to my old friends from Box Hill to fill the gap in my heart. A notable number of the lads, however, were heading for a life of crime and I was young and immature. It was hard to speak up and I found myself getting influenced by them a lot.

CHAPTER 4: Locked Up

Jail is a place that reflects a significant binary in my life. It represents the damage done to me as part of systemic racism, but it has also been a place of strength and empowerment. It’s easy to be cynical about gaining empowerment from an institution designed for punishment, but for me jail was a place of respite. I could rest my weary head and draw on my lived experiences and education to be of service to other prisoners. Jail was where I completed my fourth, fifth and sixth form secondary education. It was also where I had time and space to indulge in my love of reading.

It was always whitefellas getting me to write their letters. I don’t remember any blakfellas asking me to write for them. I’d make sure to use just the right language and phrases so these unsuspecting women back home would know they were number one. And the payment for my efforts? Tobacco and chocolate. This letter-writing business held me in good stead. I always rolled out of prison having gained a few pounds.

CHAPTER 5: The Prodigal Son

My friends pointed out that I could write the letter to my mother and address it care of the Swan Hill police. So I did. The sergeant wrote back saying, ‘It would be good to see you. I know your mum well.’

The publican at the Federal let me keep my luggage behind the bar, as it was too early for check-in. I had never drunk alcohol at this point, but I bought a carton of Melbourne Bitter. I kept it with my suitcase. It was a hot day, so I decided I’d go for a swim. I quickly downed a lemon squash and then off I went to the Swan Hill Baths. When I arrived there, I patiently lined up, got my togs ready and when it was my turn to enter, was told I couldn’t come in.
I looked at them, shocked. ‘What?’ I asked. ‘I can’t swim here?’ My brain was scrambling to understand.
The staff members shook their head. ‘No. You’re not allowed in. If you wanna swim, you have to go to the Murray down there.’

CHAPTER 6: Head Over Heels

The second I was on stage in front of those bright lights – mate, I loved it. I felt I belonged. I paid the five shillings required to join the New Theatre and stayed with them for about seven years.

Truth be told, I wasn’t certain of my own political beliefs. I didn’t understand, or care about, the difference between Marxism and Leninism. All I knew was that I loved the theatre, and the theatre loved me.

I learned a lot working for the New Theatre for those seven years. I credit that joint with my acting training, and I consider it as good as any NIDA course. I got to play a whole range of different characters. I played a West African, West Indian, South African and others. Funnily enough, I never played an Aboriginal.

Jack kind of plucked me out of semi-obscurity. He and his friends introduced me to a bigger world of art and art lovers. He even got me into jazz – a favourite haunt of ours was a traditional jazz club on Franklin Street, at Frank Trainers, in Melbourne’s CBD. Jack was great company. He was also kind and very gentle. I got to know his family and friends, and soon enough I was kicking around with his old schoolmates from a Melbourne private school, and their girlfriends. This was the gang we mucked around with in those days.

I hadn’t any idea about how to look after a car and didn’t know you had to actually wash it, polish it and start the motor from time to time. So the car sat there for a period with no one driving it. In time, I organised to have it dropped off to his old man, which I should’ve done earlier. By the time it was driven there, Jack’s car was a bit of a wreck.

CHAPTER 7: Collecting Rent

Even though hanging out with the Box Hill boys led me back down the path of crime, I was mostly carrying out the burgs on my own, late at night. It was quiet in those leafy, dark suburbs. In those days, there weren’t as many streetlights. It was much easier to not be seen. I kept myself company by singing as I prowled the streets. And I’d rehearse my lines while going from one place to another. Walking, walking, power walking; I did a shitload of it. To this day, I credit walking for my longevity, despite being a regular smoker.

I remember spotting one of the first three-in-one TV, cassette player and radios that came into Australia. It was in a house in Kew. Not only did I spot it, but I stole and sold it. Now that I knew this house was particularly well stocked with goods, I decided to go back the following month. I couldn’t believe it: they’d bought another set! They would’ve had to order it from overseas. I stole that one too.

In the middle of the night, when you’re doing a burg, your senses become heightened. And not just for me, but also for those sleeping. Invariably, it’s the woman who senses that something’s not right. They have a sixth sense that kicks in even when they’re asleep.
That stillness in the air can be stirred merely by opening a door, so entry has to be extremely quick. It’s an art, shutting that door as quietly and quickly as you can, so as not to change the atmosphere of a room. Sometimes people can detect the very air being disturbed in their sleep and that’s enough to wake them.

When I discovered my connection to this traditional land, I started thinking of my burgs as ‘collecting rent’; taking back just a small piece of what had been cruelly stolen from me and my people.

‘Yeah,’ he said, not taking his eyes off me. ‘He’s here in the bedroom. Call the police.’
‘No. I want to see him first,’ she replied, and entered the room. She took one look at me and exclaimed, ‘You’re Jack Charles!’ I shrank at the recognition. This woman had seen me in a show. And thank goodness for that. She happened to also be an enthusiastic supporter of the arts, so she didn’t call the cops. Instead, she invited me to sit in their kitchen for a cup of tea and a chat.
‘Jack,’ she said softly. ‘Why are you doing this? Why are you robbing people’s places?’
I struggled to give her an answer. ‘Well, the theatre only employs me when they want an Aboriginal. And those gigs are few and far between.’
She looked at me kindly. ‘All right, Jack. We won’t call the police, but please don’t rob us again.’

There were times when I was tired of doing burgs and wanted to be caught. Just so I could get some rest in jail.

CHAPTER 8: Psycho Ceramica

Within a year or two of starting pottery classes at Castlemaine, I was tasked with running the workshops. I named the shop ‘Psycho Ceramica’ because you had to be a crackpot to be in the nick in the first place. When prisoners stepped into my workspace, they abided by the rules. You couldn’t muck up, fuck up or be stuck up. If you did, you’d be out. It was that simple. Which isn’t to say the fellas didn’t try it. Every now and then, you’d get some cheeky bugger trying his luck making a bong. Before it went in the kiln, I’d secretly chuck some water on it, making it explode. I’d innocently say, ‘Oh geez, mate – not sure what happened there. Must’ve been an air bubble. Shame, eh?’ Whatever tomfoolery went on in Psycho Ceramica, I had no tolerance for it and would put an end to it. I knew what the space meant, not just for me, but for others. I couldn’t risk the possibility of the workshops being shut down because of one person’s fuck-up.

In jail, sometimes you put your name down to see the prison doctor, just for something to do. You’ve got to go through a couple of different sections of the jail to find the medical centre. It helps break the monotony and gives you a change of scene.

The trick to surviving prison is to never involve yourself in anything. If you feel slighted or unhappy about a comment or incident, you act deaf. Show no reaction. But there are times when you need to show that you’re tough.

Showing fear in jail only makes your life harder. I’ve seen others succumb to it. One poor young fella in F division was picked on, raped and assaulted by the others to the point where he expected it every night. He was resigned to it.

CHAPTER 9: Taking Rage to the Stage

When the Arts Council gave me a grant to start an Aboriginal theatre, I co-founded it with Bob. We wanted to develop a modern blak theatre movement – the first blak theatre company in Australia. I remember flipping through a small Aboriginal language book and coming across the word ‘Nindethana’, which means ‘ours’

In 1972, The Pram Factory produced the play Bastardy, written by John Romeril and directed by Bruce Spence. It was based loosely on my alcoholic memories of meeting my mother for the first time, and was well reviewed as a fine example of Romeril’s powerful writing and a significant tale of the Stolen Generations.

The Opera House waited until the very last moment before finally calling me and agreeing to pay all the girls the correct fee. I told them, ‘I’m so pissed off with you, ya bastards. Y’know, making those girls wait so long.’ I paused but there was no response. Time to pull out the big guns. ‘Okay, I’ll stay, but I’m going to do Bennelong naked. Fuck yas.’ It seemed like a fair exchange for the stress we’d been put under. And so I did it. Wandered on stage and performed the show with me willy dangling on the Opera House stage.

I still wasn’t drinking. I’d go into pubs to check out music and for the social aspect of it but didn’t touch so much as a drop. Instead, I got into heroin because I needed some foible, as you do.

heroin soon had me in its grip. It was straight out of the frying pan and into the fire.

CHAPTER 10: My Brother Archie

Discovering family gave me a new lease on life and sense of purpose. It was nice to instantly become an uncle. And a brother.

Folks will find themselves in a space together and they’ll look at each other and say, ‘’Scuse me, what’s your name? What mob are you from?’ They’re the first questions we ask if we see another blak person. It’s a meaningful way to establish a connection of sorts – profound or otherwise. White people see themselves everywhere and so their sense of identity is such that they don’t need to necessarily go searching for that connection. But for blakfellas, that yearning for culture, kin and community runs deep.

Archie wandered around Fitzroy asking strangers for money to support his drug habit. He was a good coal-biter; forceful and very insistent, and you could hear him coming from a long way away. Coal-biting is when you’re begging and not trying to offer anything in return (unlike, say, a pan-handler or a busker). He was very forceful and would sometimes grab people’s arms as they walked past. I told him, ‘Don’t do that, Archie. It’s abusive.’ But he didn’t give it a second thought to encroach on a person’s space. You know, people would be sitting enjoying their latté and brunch down on Smith Street or Brunswick Street and he’d approach them and spray saliva all over them while asking for spare change. They’d give him a note to get him to piss off so he wouldn’t be spitting all over their food and drink.

Turns out Archie had been busted doing over many of the same houses I’d done, particularly around the Kooyong area.

From all along the east coast, New South Wales, to Victoria and South Australia, ‘moom’ was a well-known word for ‘bum’ and ‘Moomba’ means ‘up ya bum’. God, we bloody hooted. We laughed our tits off.

I didn’t know Archie had that arrangement with those three Yugoslavs. I never met or spoke with them. They injected poisonous shit into my brother that meant he was never the same. Years later, when I asked Archie what’d been injected into him he frantically and loudly cried out in his staccato manner of speaking, ‘They. Gave. Me. Bon Ami!’ That’s the powder you clean your sinks with. That’s what they injected into Archie. My brother. A brutal combination of heroin and Bon Ami that went straight into his veins and forever changed him. Bloody shocking.

I was living in the George Wright Hostel when Archie came out of Aradale and he came directly to me. Seeing him really shocked me because physically he’d changed so much. He was limping, had a hunched back and his arm was often stretched up and curled over his head. Someone said it was a sign of Archie trying to protect himself from bashings but I knew it was something more than that and was likely an overload of the psych drugs they’d given him. My heart sank with sadness and fear.

A couple of months later I was told that they’d tried to get the medical records from Pentridge, but they couldn’t find them.
They tried to get the records from Aradale, but they couldn’t find them.
They tried to get the records from H Division. But they couldn’t find them.
I don’t know if the records were destroyed or what happened, but to this day I still want answers.

CHAPTER 11: The Raging Brer Rabbit

There were two or three others with drug habits, but I was the only one on heroin. We ended up looking out for each other.

One of the actors stood up one day and said, ‘You know, they say actors should never work with children and animals? Well, I’ve got a new saying: “Never work with children, animals and Jack Charles”!’ and everyone screamed with laughter, including myself.

CHAPTER 12: The Fairy Kingdom and a Funeral

Creatively, Bastardy was a risky undertaking for both of us. I was deep in the throes of addiction at that time and the story could very well have ended tragically. As I say in the film, ‘If I hide anything, it wouldn’t be a true depiction.’ Well, nothing was hidden. No stone was left unturned. You see me burgs, you see me shooting up, sleeping on a cardboard box under a stairwell – getting busted, heading into jail, leaving jail. Amiel captured it all during those seven years and shared it with the world. The very last burg I did was captured there in that doco. There’s a scene where Amiel tells me he’s received a phone call. The homeowner’s security camera had busted me.

I’m not sure what compels a person to rob a friend of a friend, but in my case all I can say is it was borderline kleptomania.

Despite Bastardy’s success, I couldn’t escape my past. Sometimes it didn’t just come back to haunt me, it straight up bit me on the moom. In 2010 I was invited to do two Q and A’s at the Sheffield International Documentary Festival in the United Kingdom. I’d just acquired my brand-spanking-new passport to travel over and we were set to take Sheffield by storm, except that I had forgotten about my extensive rap sheet. Four days before I was to fly out, the British High Commission refused my visa.
I was beside myself. In a panic, I called Amiel, who was in London, to update him on this dilemma. He was shocked. But life has a funny way of turning things around. When I called Amiel, he happened to be in the company of Australian singer-songwriter Missy Higgins. Concerned, she listened to Amiel’s conversation with me and heard my plaintive cry. Missy didn’t skip a beat. She hopped on the blower and rang Peter Garrett, who was the Minister for Environment Protection, Heritage and the Arts at that time, to see if he could intervene on my behalf. How’s that for a bit of luck? I had two rockers getting together to make a pathway for me. I waited impatiently and nervously to see what the outcome would be.

It turned out Archie came out of Aradale with a sexually transmitted disease – HIV. He also had kidney disease due to hepatitis C. If all of that wasn’t enough, he had tuberculosis – which beggars belief. The only blakfella I know in Melbourne who had tuberculosis. Poor fella.

They had to know full well that I, Jack Charles, was too far up meself to audition. It’s true. When it comes to acting roles, auditioning and getting knocked back just won’t do. I’m very lucky to be in the unique position where I’m not forced to audition in order to be seriously considered for roles. The great Australian actor Bill Hunter never auditioned either, so I take my lead from him. He told me once, ‘I get away with it so often, Jack. Thing is, I can’t act but everybody reckons I can.’ It was a relief to hear someone of his calibre say that, not to mention his advice that I should be more assertive. I responded, ‘Well, I’m in the same boat, Bill. So long as we know our lines and create the illusion of being someone else, then we’ll get across the line. You know, if it works for us, it’ll work for the audience.’

My criminal record was more than twenty pages long and Warner Brothers wanted me on their set in a week. But such is the influence of Warner Brothers that my visa was approved in twenty-four hours. It had taken eighteen months to have my visa approved in order to get me over to London to do my Jack Charles v The Crown show, but there I was in next to no time with a visa.

CHAPTER 13: Senior Victorian Australian of the Year

Hair is not the same as race. It’s not. That there could even be a correlation made between the two beggars belief, but there you have it. This dismissiveness, denial and unwillingness to listen and show genuine empathy is in itself a form of racism. I said in response that, no, Goodes was not being sensitive. I described Australia as being ‘uniquely racist’, particularly towards First Nations Australians. I stand by that.

Daniel Andrews, stood up in front of me. He’s a big fella with an extremely large moom, so I got up and hid behind that! If you were looking front on, you wouldn’t have been able to see my hair on either side of his body. I shrank behind him and thought, ‘This is good. Thank you, Danny boy.’

‘I’ve never been asked to pay a sum of money upfront. I believe you’re being a racist, mate. You’re racially vilifying me.’ We refused to pay the driver upfront and I told him what he was doing was against the law. Furthermore, I told him I’d take photos of him and make a complaint.

Seeing a row of taxis, I noticed the bloke waiting in my allocated bay. He spotted me, but as I began to wander over to him he took a good look at me in the rearview mirror, then started up the cab and drove off.

CHAPTER 14: Healing

I’m still pissed off over the fact that those of us of the Stolen Generations are still doing hard time in prisons. It’s intergenerational. If your father or mother was ripped from their family, they never got to learn about tribal lore or customs. Things like nurturing a child by wrapping them in a possum-skin cloak, or learning the basic necessities of the trees your feet brush past and where to find food or medicine in nature.

Heads of government don’t like the word ‘Treaty’. Then again, they don’t like the words ‘racism’ or ‘genocide’, either. They talk about ‘discovery’ and avoid the word ‘invasion’. These word choices seem small, but they go to show how unwilling the government is to be accountable and face the difficult truths of this nation’s history.

EPILOGUE: The Journey Never-ending

I am Jack Charles, son of Blanchie Charles. I am Boon Wurrung, Dja Dja Wurrung, Woiwurrung and Yorta Yorta. I’m not merely Koorie, not ‘just’ an Aboriginal.

For many Aboriginal people, the only time we get to see a doctor is when we’re in jail.

When you’re Stolen, not only is the system looking to eradicate your culture, it also messes up your personal history. Having your identity and sense of belonging ripped to shreds is an unspeakable horror. You feel bloody hoodwinked not even knowing your own life story. You might go years thinking events in your early life happened a particular way, only to discover there’s another version of events. Then you might find out that neither of those versions is correct. For instance, I thought I’d been taken when I was two months old. As an adult I found out that I was actually four months. It’s difficult to explain to those who don’t understand how this mucks up your head. When you’re Stolen, you desperately try to piece together the shattered fragments of your life story. When you’re given incorrect details, it’s infuriating. Among the lies, the deceit, misinformation and no information, you’re trying to identify what is actually real and correct.

Ultimately, the essence of being a Stolen person is that you’re always trying to find out who the hell you are.

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