Blessed: The Breakout year of Rampaging Roy Slaven. By John Doyle.
Updated: Jun 27, 2022
‘Rampaging’ Roy Slaven is a household name.
He is a tennis champion, the highly successful coach of the Lithgow Shamrocks rugby league club, and trainer of the mighty Melbourne Cup-winning stallion Rooting King.
He is also one half of iconic radio duo HG and Roy, with his fast-talking sidekick HG Nelson, as heard for many years on Triple J (and now back on the ABC).
Roy Slaven is, of course, a fictional character, or at least a fictional mask, worn by an actual person called John Doyle. Listening to Roy and HG on radio, you get the sense that the real-life John Doyle and Greg Pickhaver (who plays HG) are never far away. But if drawing a line between the fictional Roy Slaven and the real John Doyle is tricky on radio, then it is impossible in John Doyle’s latest book Blessed: The Breakout Year of Rampaging Roy Slaven.
Let’s start with the premise of the book: it’s supposedly a memoir of Roy’s last year of school in Lithgow - as told by Roy to John Doyle. But it gets weirder, because John Doyle is not just Roy’s ghost writer, he’s also a character in the story, as one of Roy’s closest school friends.
The end result is a gonzo memoir. It’s like watching John Doyle’s high school years through a hall of crazy mirrors. The story is stretched, distorted and magnified, but you know that underneath it all lies a layer of truth. Roy/John’s depiction of late 60s Lithgow feels familiar, but - in typical Roy and HG fashion - it’s also entertaining, clever and at times laugh-out-loud funny.
If you’re into Roy and HG then you’ll enjoy this book. There are plenty of tales about of Roy’s extraordinary sporting exploits – like his straight sets demolition of local real estate agent and tennis champ Brian Lawson. But there’s also much more to it than just tales of glory. In fact, it covers a lot of rocky terrain.
Growing up in Lithgow
For a start, there’s the pain of adolescence and growing up. The boys in Third Form at De La Salle Academy in Lithgow grapple with the mysteries of girls (in spite of the Brothers’ dubious instructions about ‘etiquette’ with the ‘fairer sex’). Later they confront the pain of grief when they experience the death of a much-loved teacher. There’s the strict social divisions of the 1960s between Catholics and Protestants, and between the private school kids and public school kids, which take on even more significance in a country town.
Autism plays a prominent role in the story, reflecting John’s relationship with his profoundly autistic sister, Jen. Doyle's experience with his sister leads him to question the religious teachings he's receiving at school - "What sort of God makes a girl want to smash her own face in?"
And there is also an underlying theme of domestic violence and the treatment of women. Roy's father, 'Bot' Slaven. is a proto-type deadbeat dad who was violent to his wife, Paulette, and absent for Roy. Nevertheless, in this pre-Whitlam era, Paulette finds that getting a divorce is not easy.
At first, you could be forgiven that Roy is the hero of the story. But as the narrative unwinds it emerges is that Roy is an avatar for the hopes, dreams, ambitions and frailties that we all carry around with us. But no, the real heroes of the story are all around him. The heroes are Doyle's hardworking parents, and Jen. The heroes are his school friends. Working class Lithgow itself is heroic. And most of all, the hero is Paulette - Roy's stoic, selfless and courageous mum,.
Blessed is about hope, loyalty and humility. It’s the hope of better times to come better that keeps Roy and Paulette going when things get rough. It’s the loyalty that Roy and Paulette have to each other which gives them strength. And it’s humility which allows them to put both good times and bad times into perspective. We identify with Roy not because he is talented, but because he is caring, curious, thoughtful and ordinary. He is one of us.
Braddy & Jenko
Blessed also resonates because most of us know someone who is particularly good at sport. Over the past few months I’ve had cause to reflect on the lives of two successful sportspeople and the impact they had me: Keith Bradshaw and Mike Jenkinson.
Keith passed away last November, and Mike passed away last week.
If Ricky Ponting was the Roy Slaven of Tasmanian cricket, Keith Bradshaw was not far behind. He rose quickly to become captain of the state team, and was in the mix for Australian Test or one day honours. He also helped out with coaching the junior rep squads that I managed to talk my way into. Keith was pretty much the first ‘famous’ person that I got to know (although I also had ex-Australian basketballer Kathy Foster as a high school science teacher). I changed clubs because I wanted to play at a higher grade, and I chose New Town District Cricket Club because it was where Keith played. He was cheeky, relentlessly positive and encouraging, talented, determined, but always kind, polite, and interested in others.
Keith stepped away from professional cricket at a surprisingly young age to concentrate on university and work – a decision which absolutely baffled me and my mates at New Town. He knew better than we did: he went on to have a successful career and business, before turning his hand to cricket administration. He became the first Australian to be appointed CEO of the storied Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) (which runs the Lords ground in London), and then CEO of the South Australian Cricket Association, where he is credited as being a central figure behind the redevelopment of Adelaide Oval.
Mike Jenkinson played rugby union for Australia. He was a ‘livewire hooker’ who toured Africa with the Wallabies in 1963, playing eight matches. He went on to play professionally in Italy as well, but I knew him as the ex-journo who headed up the communications division of the government department that I worked for after leaving University. After a few years, my career in the public service was going around in circles. I told Mike that I was interested in writing, and asked him if he had any opportunities coming up. He almost immediately offered me a three-month placement, and my life changed on the spot. Both of us quickly worked out that I had found my niche. Just a couple of years later, thanks in no small part to Mike’s mentoring and encouragement, I was working as a speechwriter and media adviser in the office of the Premier of Tasmania.
Mike was a natural storyteller, and a warm, patient teacher. Like Keith, he used his experience and status to help others. Neither of them were boastful, or big-headed, and both would have baulked at the phrase “role models”, but that’s what they were.
In Blessed, Paulette says to Roy: “I’m very proud of you. You could easily be a show-off. But you’re not”.
Vale Braddy and Jenko.