John Doyle on childhood, his new memoir and why Roy Slaven is his ‘mask of courage’

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Few Australians know John Doyle as John Doyle. They know him as the broadcast character he invented: Rampaging Roy Slaven. Since 1986 Roy has teamed up with Greig Pickhaver’s counterpart HG Nelson, imagined as an excitable sports caller while Roy is the droll former player. His backstory expanded as the years went on: Test cricketer, rugby league legend, Melbourne Cup trainer, tennis savant, Olympic swimming coach. The Olympics gave Roy and HG their brightest moment, when their late-night show The Dream became the surprise hit of the Sydney 2000 Games.

So on hearing that Doyle wrote a memoir, one first expects confessional work from the man behind the character. On clarifying that the memoir is Roy’s, the expectation changes to madcap comedy. On further clarifying that the book includes Doyle as a character alongside Roy as teenagers, one sees a device to allow the author to better deprecate his younger self. Roy’s early descriptions of Doyle playing cricket bear that out – but then the book ends up being something else entirely.

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Instead we get a gentle drawing of character and place over the course of 1967 in Lithgow, a coal town at the feet of the Blue Mountains. The world is changing. For those with 40ft aerials, television has arrived. Roy at age 15 is dropped into a town of otherwise real people, principally Doyle’s classmates and the order of variously eccentric Brothers at the Catholic school. There is plenty of humour without straining to be comedy. Doyle is a swot. Roy’s athletic gifts are blooming but he doesn’t lord them over anyone: he’s kind at heart and stays on the periphery outside sport. His observations from there are telling.

“There were no expectations,” explains the current Doyle from his home in Sydney. “Nobody said write something funny. I guess being in lockdown, as we were last year, there was a sense of melancholy, whether that filtered through into it or not. Once I got going, this was the mood that seemed the best way to do it, to focus in on the issues of the time.”

The younger Doyle is cast sympathetically. He may have uncool interests like running the local meteorology station but he’s perceptive about himself and others. He and Roy contrast but don’t jar. When he shows his friend Jupiter through a telescope Roy is entranced, and through Roy we see the chaotic home life that Doyle handles with equilibrium. Study is an escape, Doyle retreating to the beer room behind the family shop and immersing himself in anything from geology to Beatles records to take his mind anywhere else.

Wearing the mask of Roy enables me – it gives me the confidence to express views with impunity

John Doyle

This home is the emotional heart of the book, especially the suffering of Doyle’s sister Jen. She is severely autistic, episodically trying to punch herself or gorging food without chewing until she’s sick. Outside a house with the fridge tied shut, Doyle spends hours sitting in the car with Jen while she screams. Both the Catholic and public school refuse to educate her. In a story full of teenagers racing towards adulthood, alive with that unique joy and fear, Jen is imprisoned in her own body, unable to take part.

“It was about her pain, to have it registered,” says Doyle of these pages. “It was not uncommon, parents or families who had what they called ‘subnormal’ children. It isolated you, there were very few resources, almost none. My sister wasn’t diagnosed until she was 11. Up until that point no one knew what was wrong with her. That’s when the word first came into the house: autism. By then the boat of early intervention had well and truly sailed.”

Young Doyle’s tenderness to Jen sits next to his anger at her experience, in the context of the overbearing Catholicism of his world. “What sort of God does that to a girl?” he rages when his calm breaks. “There are only two answers. Either there is no God. Or God is a cunt.” Roy as his audience is scandalised and fascinated.

“That was always the issue,” says Doyle now. “Because our family was so attached to believing every word that came from the church. It drove me nuts. In the same way it drove me nuts that they continued to vote for the party that would send my brother and nearly me to Vietnam, at the same time as they tried to get him and nearly me out of it … I paid lip service to the sacraments, I would take myself off to confession, but as Roy pointed out, while I was confessing I had these doubts that it was bullshit while I was doing it.”

Others are trapped, too. Roy is the product of a teenage tryst and a shotgun marriage, so neither he nor his mother are sad to see his father take off after 15 years. “It was incredibly difficult for young mothers,” says Doyle now. “There wasn’t much support given to them. In fact there was opprobrium.” Paulette is in her early 30s and starting to rediscover some sense of self, meaning she is constantly lectured by the local priests about morality and social perception. Circumscribing women’s lives is an assumed responsibility.

Doyle and Pickhaver re-enact their pose from the Packing Room prize-winning painting Roy and HG
Doyle and Pickhaver re-enact their pose from the Packing Room prize-winning painting Roy and HG, by Paul Newton. Photograph: Dean Lewins/AAP

A lasting resentment of the Catholic church is no surprise given its manifold disgraces. “I watched the royal commission into child abuse, I streamed it almost daily,” Doyle says. “I found it shocking and unsurprising. I’m grateful that none of us experienced anything like that.” He also marvels that the sectarian isolation he grew to despise did forge relationships: he remains in touch with his classmates and one of the Brothers, all of whom agreed to appear in the book.

The writing, then, “was a little bit of both, nostalgia and therapy. I do look back on those years with rose-coloured glasses, I genuinely do. The Brothers honestly did their level best to educate us. It’s just that they had this terrible, terrible baggage that they carried with them.”

As blunt as Blessed’s observations can be, affection is constant. It is in part a love letter to Lithgow, a love letter to adolescence and its companionship. It covers the well-trodden path out of boyhood without erring into cliche or striving to be profound. We have Roy and Doyle, that strange relationship between two parts of a whole. Doyle expands Roy’s idea of what is possible. Roy’s approval nourishes Doyle. In a moment of realisation, Roy says, “I think he needs me.”

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Which even now, 54 years on from that half-imagined time, Doyle agrees is true. “In an hour and a half’s time I’ll put the mask on again and Roy will be there again for half an hour doing a daily program for the ABC. Wearing the mask of Roy enables me – it gives me the confidence to express views with impunity, in a way that me as myself couldn’t possibly do. I couldn’t do it. It’s a mask of courage that Roy gives me. That’s why, when Roy says ‘He needs me,’ I sort of do. I do.”

Preconceptions can weigh down a work, and Blessed could have stood as its own story, setting up its characters without the Roy Slaven tag attached. But Roy’s voice helped Doyle find the story, and preconceptions give an author the chance to turn them upside down. This is what we get, in a book that is above all beautifully surprising. Through Roy’s feats on the field, there is plenty in there for lovers of this sporting life, but Doyle points the telescope upwards and shows much bigger things outside that sphere as well.

• Blessed: The Breakout Year of Rampaging Roy Slaven by John Doyle is out now through Hachette

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