Over the Top with Jim

First published: 2012


bookcover_overthetop01 Some readers have read Over the Top with Jim 3 times, or 14 times, or even “more than 100 times”. One woman told me “I’ve been reading OTTWJ for nine years and I’m on the last page and I don’t want it to finish”. It is hard for me as the author to know why this has happened; why hundreds of thousands of people wanted to read a book about a family who had a cake shop in Australia in the 1940s and 1950s. A favourite chapter was our trip to Melbourne at Christmas 1954 in the Ford Zephyr. Every reader seems to have a different favourite character. Some liked my pastry-cook father Fred in his pith helmet and apron; some loved my big strong brave mother Olive. Others loved my big brother Jackie. And many readers said they liked best of all Dimitri Jim Egoroff – my Russian classmate with the scar down the middle of his nose, and arms like a mud crab. Because he was so tough.

Young readers told me they wished they were growing up in the 1950s when we rode our bikes for miles, swam in the local Ekibin Creek, and made nullanullas and shanghais so we could fight the State School Kids on our way home from our Catholic convent, Mary Immaculate, at Annerley Junction, Brisbane, Queensland.

Two people have named their child Hugh after reading the book. An accountant in Adelaide read the book and decided to move to Brisbane because of it. An eight-year-old reader asked “Why did you stab Jim with a lead pencil at school?” and a seven-year-old wrote to say that when her family was posted to Brisbane she was afraid “But Over the Top with Jim stopped me from being afraid.”

“A beautiful evocation of childhood. Don’t miss reading Over the Top with Jim. It’s one of the funniest most moving autobiographies around.”
Rosalind Dunn, The Sun

“A glittering gem of a memoir.”
Robert Macklin, Canberra Times

“Searingly funny account of growing up in a working-class family in 1950s Australia…holds a special place in the heart of thousands of Australians and that has made Hugh Lunn a national treasure.”
Southern Highland News, Bowral

“Hugh Lunn writes of his Brisbane suburban childhood with great feeling and affection. It’s a book that had me roaring with laughter…a warm, witty and amusing remembrance.”
Des Partridge, The Courier-Mail

“A universal story about growing up.”
Ross Fitzgerald, The Australian

“Very funny and irreverent…a classic.”
John Tidey, The Age

“A triumph for Australian publishing.”
Ian McNamara, ABC Radio Australia All Over

“What a delight! Can one really be so blessed with a Fred and Olive for a Mum and Dad? So Australian, so evocative…Bravo!”
Susan Johnson, novelist

“A wonderful, wonderful read. It takes pride of place in my house. I’m a very proud Australian and the things that that book covered, it was me. And I’m sure a lot of people saw themselves in all the things described. It was all very, very true.”
Wayne Roberts, on Brisbane radio

“An embarrassing book to read in public. I defy you to read it without laughing out loud.”
Ray Martin, Channel Nine

“Hugh has provided us with a large number of candid insights into his formative years, even some scarifyingly brutal insights. I’m impressed by the number of occasions when the notion of impure thoughts is mentioned… It’s an affectionate, slightly wistful, and embarrassingly accurate account of the way I remember growing up.”
John Dickie, Australia’s Chief Censor, 1989

You couldn’t get much further away from international politics
than to be a child in Brisbane in 1951 but, although I was
only nine years old, I knew enough to know that you just don’t get
Russians called James. I don’t know how I knew this. But I did.
Perhaps it was because the nuns said the government was going to
ban the iron heel of Communism in Australia. Or maybe I was just
suspicious of all foreigners because of the number of non-Catholics
and State School kids who were living at Annerley Junction in those
days. Or maybe, after six years of religious instruction by the nuns
at our St Joseph’s Convent, I knew that the name of an apostle didn’t
sit well on a Red. Not even Judas, let alone James. For, despite what
he had done by telling on God, Judas was still a Catholic and he
could well have made an Act of Contrition just as he passed away
and thus could have died in the State of Grace (barring any last minute
impure thoughts) and gone straight to Heaven.
And I knew from our religious instruction that no Communist
like this new kid in the class could go to Heaven or even get past
Limbo, even if he did somehow find out about our secret of doing
the nine First Fridays so that St Joseph would make sure we went
to Heaven.
I knew a lot about St Joseph because the convent was run by the
Sisters of St Joseph. They named themselves after him because he
was God’s Dad and it was their job to teach us about God and how
he made the world and Catholics. In fact the first line in our most
important study book, the Catechism, was ‘Who made the world?’
I was pretty stupid when I started at the convent when I was only
four years old and so, because the next question in bold print was
‘Who made me?’, for a long time I said my prayers to ‘Who’.
But that was before we learned the answers off by heart: ‘God
made the world’, and ‘God made me, giving me a body and a soul’.
After that I worshipped God.
Then the answers got much longer and more complicated, like
some of the prayers after you learned off by heart the simple ones
like the Hail Mary, the Our Father, and the Act of Contrition.
These were the three main prayers other than the ‘Glory Be’: the
first one admitting that I was a sinner; the second asking God to
deliver me from the evil that was everywhere; and the third begging
forgiveness for my sins and promising never to sin again.
Not that there was much chance of risking a sin at the convent
with all those nuns around, at least twenty of them, I reckon. They
were sort of like God’s policemen, dressed in black and able to
predict sins before they were even committed. Think of cheating
and you would be warned; consider swearing and one would
appear; throw something and your name would be called. Impure
thoughts were just far too risky. Boys seemed to be their main
target, which perhaps explained why there were so few of us and so
many girls at the school: outnumbered probably four to one.
They often referred to a boy as ‘his nibs’ and if you did something
tough, like pulling a girl’s hair, they said you were ‘looking for
notice’ yet if a big girl hurt you they said ‘we should put you in a
glass case and throw sugar at you’.
The Sisters liked the same things as the girls—especially Holy
Pictures—even though the nuns were almost all incredibly old and
often had men’s names: like Sister Vincent, Sister Damian, or Sister
James. They wore large crucifixes stuck into a black belt around
their waist like a dagger. Giant black rosary beads hung down
from their waists to near the ground, rattling a muffled warning
when they glided into a room like moving statues.
Apart from their hands, the only visible human parts of these
nuns were all the holes in their face: the eyes, nostrils and mouth.
This made them look like non-human creatures who could only
talk, breathe and see. Particularly as the face was framed tightly
by a stiff white material which hid their foreheads, ears, and necks.
Their hair was hidden beneath a black veil attached to the stiff white
material with long pins which they often removed and replaced
while talking to the class so it seemed they were sticking long sharp
pins deep into their heads. The white material folded down over the
bosom, reflecting light up into their faces from below.
It was this lit-face look and the stiff-headed effect which made
them seem like the life-sized statues we prayed to in the huge red
brick church in the school grounds—a church so sacred and holy
it was called Mary Immaculate after ‘Our Lady’, which is what we
Catholics called the Virgin Mary to show she was no-one else’s but
ours.
Not that I knew the meaning of ‘virgin’ or the other words we
used every day in prayers about her, like ‘womb’ and ‘immaculate’—
but I guess I knew enough about them to know not to ask any of
the nuns what they were.
And I knew enough to think it strange that the nuns dressed in
black, because it was not a church colour: it was the Devil’s colour.
What I didn’t know, as we lined up in our grade five class at
assembly, was that one of these black figures was watching me,
realising I was about to sin. Standing in the row in front of me was
the new boy, the Russian, James, whose family had just arrived in
Australia. The nuns said he was a White Russian, but he didn’t look
very white to me. Everyone who came to Australia was supposed
to be white before they could get in, so it was obvious he and his
family had slipped into Brisbane one night in the dark. We were
all white—even the State School kids—but this Russian’s skin was
brown and his hair was as black as our school shoes. He had an
ugly scar down the length of his nose in the middle of his round
face. He also had a funny name the like of which had not been
heard at the convent before—‘Egoroff’.
And, something even stranger, although he claimed his first
name was James someone had checked the roll book and his initial
was ‘D’, which proved I was right. Even I knew enough to know
that James did not start with a ‘D’.
One of the smart girls found out that the D was for Dimitri,
another foreign-sounding name like Stalin and Egoroff.
‘You Communist pig, Dima,’ I sneered from behind him,
shortening Dimitri because it was long, as was our custom.
Confident in the knowledge that none of the boys around me
wanted anything to do with him, and convinced that he was
too scared to answer, I continued: ‘You Russian dog, Dima.’ At
last, after nearly six years, I had found a way to be popular with
the rest of the boys—the girls didn’t matter: the only thing that
interested them was homework and Holy Pictures. Particularly
new Holy Pictures, which seemed to arrive every week to be held
up triumphantly before the class by a nun so that the girls could cry
in sickly unison, ‘Oooohhh, Ssssisterrr.’ Which was their girls’ way
of saying they liked something a lot.
Just as I was about to give the Russian another one, Egoroff turned
around: ‘You Australian donkey,’ he said, in English. Donkey? Of
all the animals he could have picked this was the last one I had
expected. Rat, dingo, grub, snake, yes … but donkeys were friendly,
like kangaroos or horses. And how could they allow a foreigner, a
dark New Australian, a banned Commo, to come to our school in
Brisbane in broad daylight and call Australians names? ‘You Red
worm,’ I answered just before Egoroff lunged his palms at both sides
of my head saying, ‘I rubber your ears,’ ‘I rubber your ears.’
It was like torture, Japanese torture at its worst, and this
smart-alec Russky added a whole new threat to my already awful
existence. If ever an example of Red aggression was needed this
was it: the Cold War they talked about all the time in Dad’s cake
shop was really starting to hot up……………..

…..Sister James was the exception.
She might have been old and ugly but Sister James was more like a mother than a nun. When she heard I couldn’t draw a 2 she took me aside during Big Lunch and tried to show me how, but as soon as she left I lost the trick. It wasn’t until a couple of days later, when I was drawing with a stick in the dirt under the house, that I suddenly got it right and I covered the whole of under the house in 2s of all sizes.
It was the same with telling the time and reaching the light
switch; suddenly you could do it and you wondered why it was ever
a problem.
Sister James also taught me how to say ‘three’.
She took me to an empty classroom and got me to hold my right
forefinger an inch in front of my mouth. Then as I started to say
‘three’, I had to touch my fi nger with my tongue.
It worked like magic.
After Sister James, the lessons and the nuns got tougher.
…..
As the big Scholarship Public Exam drew near, Sister Vincent decided that myself and one of the girls could not pass—and she called the two of us
out to her raised desk and said she would not nominate us. Then my many prayers were answered.
Old Sister James, who still taught the infants, stumbled across
the field to the big school one day to speak to me. She said she
thought I would do much better in tests if I had no distractions
around me, and she arranged with Sister Vincent for me to do a
Scholarship arithmetic paper sitting by myself on a concrete slab
up behind her infant class under the church between the classroom
and the dirt.
Amazingly I got 110 out of 150, by far the best I had ever done,
and Sister James told Sister Vincent she felt this proved I could pass the exam. Sister Vincent said she didn’t think I could, but said I could have a go, provided I nominated myself.
The worst thing about the Scholarship was that it was held at
State schools because it was a state exam, not a Catholic one. So
we all had to gather at the convent and then walk the six or seven
blocks to the home of our natural enemies, Junction Park State
School.
Olive was very worried about this. So worried that she went
to town and bought some ‘relaxing tonic’ from Chemist Roush
who had talked about it on the wireless in his show ‘The Radio
Chemist Speaks’. It was a pink-coloured liquid in a big bottle and,
although I said I didn’t want it, I was told to take a tablespoonful.
It didn’t make me feel any different, but Olive relaxed after I took
her potion.
The nuns couldn’t come with us, so Sister Vincent gathered
everyone around for a last talk—while Sister James pulled me aside.
The first thing Sister James did was to produce a blue fountain pen
which you could fill up with ink by operating a lever on the side.
This way you didn’t have to keep dipping your nib in ink. Like an
indelible pencil, it just kept writing. ‘No-one who has ever used
this pen has failed State Scholarship,’ Sister James said gravely. ‘So I want you to use it.’ Then she produced a medal with the face of a saint on it and pinned it to my shirt with a small safety pin. ‘This is the medal of St Jude,’ she said, ‘the patron saint of hopeless causes.’
He was a saint we had never heard much of, but she said he was the
man Catholics around the world prayed to ‘in grave necessities’. He
was one of the twelve apostles and, Sister James said, he ‘secured
the crown of martyrdom in Persia when his head was cleft with a
broadaxe’.
Was this really the saint I should be relying on?

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