Journalist and author Martin Flanagan attended a Catholic boarding school in Tasmania from 1966 to 1971. It was after a third priest from his time at the school was convicted of sexual crimes that he began this memoir. It was 2019, George Pell’s guilty verdict was being challenged in the High Court, and the debate around paedophile priests was raging. Everyone in the media seemed certain about what happened in schools like his and yet, for Flanagan and his brothers, none of it was clear at all. Not that he doubted the victims – in a 2007 trial, he had given evidence against one of the priests – but as a journalist he knew how unreliable memory could be. Perhaps now was the time to see what he did remember.
What emerges from this reckoning is The Empty Honour Board: A school memoir, a remarkably calm and clear-eyed account of five traumatic school years. He remembers a brutal place characterised by savage corporal punishment and rampant bullying among the boys, and an environment that felt profoundly unsafe. But, remarkably, this is not a book filled with rage. He does not resent his parents for sending him to the school or for doubting him when he told them what he had witnessed there. He is incredibly generous to other boys, some of whom traumatised him, and to the priests.
Throughout he is eager to recount kindnesses and instances when the absurdity of the place became comic. Flanagan is best known as a sportswriter, and the book includes a vivid account of his burgeoning love for Australian rules football, as well as many anecdotes about childhood heroes. In these moments the book seems to aspire to a more familiar coming-of-age memoir: the colourful account of the harsh boarding school that the narrator survives, and finally escapes, rushing towards a better life. But the trauma of those years casts a pall over all this.
Some will want him to be more categorical in his judgements of the priests. Flanagan’s position seems to be that there are no easy answers, that this is a school system that punishes everyone. His favourite novel is Lord of the Flies. To learn as a child that under the right circumstances people will willingly torture one another has led to a lifelong fight against the bleakness of this vision of humanity. This peripatetic memoir is part of his struggle to find what he describes as “the seams of white” in the blackest black.Viking, 224pp, $24.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 12, 2023 as "The Empty Honour Board: A school memoir".
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