Writer with outsider's vantage
ALAN COLLINS, WRITER
24-09-1928 — 27-03-2008
ALAN Collins, one of a small group of Jewish writers of his generation who was born in Australia and wrote extensively about Jews in Australia and their struggle to survive in two disparate and sometimes hostile worlds, has died at Cabrini Hospital from complications of lymphoma. He was 79.
Collins drew heavily on his own early experiences and even as he attempted to make sense of politics, religion and the challenges of simply existing, he never yielded to introspection or self-pity.
He found that many young people from migrant families empathised with his stories of growing up as part of a minority group, and gained an increased understanding of the historical context of political and religious issues in Australia and overseas.
Collins is best known for the autobiographical novel The Boys from Bondi, in which he described a collision of cultures as his Bondi urchin encountered well-educated young Jews from Europe. In launching the book, poet Fay Zwicky spoke of how "the vantage point of the lone outsider is an invaluable territorial bonus to the writer".
Collins' journalism, prose, drama and several poems are often humorous, even when he writes about the darker aspects of the pre-war years.
For example, in the short story A Thousand Nights at the Ritz, he describes his father's embarrassing and perplexing habits in the cinema. These include loudly identifying everyone of talent associated with the film as Jewish while rubbishing "reffo" Jews shown in a newsreel arriving in Australia.
Author Judah Waten said in his introduction to Troubles (1983), a critically acclaimed collection of 21 short stories, that "Alan Collins … has recorded movingly, the lives of Jews without money (without being) cynical or misanthropic". Collins might well have become misanthropic. His mother died the day she gave birth to him in Sydney. Relatives were unable or unwilling to care for him and he was sent to a variety of children's homes until he was returned to his father, who had remarried.
The archetypal cruel stepmother ill-treated the boy to such a degree that a magistrate ordered that he be sent to the Isabella Lazarus Home for Jewish refugee children.
His childhood is described graphically in his confronting yet surprisingly funny memoir Alva's Boy, to be published later this year by Hybrid.
When he was 14, he was sent out into the world as an apprentice printer, living on lowly wages in crude rooming houses — and worse followed when he left to work in what he succinctly described as the inferno of a glass factory.
He had a talent for writing and after working at Nock and Kirby hardware as advertising manager, he joined the Sydney Sun as a young reporter, and then became editor of the Sydney Jewish News. He gave himself an education by reading in public libraries and through second-hand books.
In 1953, he left Sydney for Melbourne, where he became advertising manager for Rockmans Stores. He met and married Rosaline Fox in London in 1957 and they returned to Melbourne where he resumed work at Rockmans.
Home was a flat in Elwood, where their eldest son, Daniel, was born. The dream of having a real home for the first time in his life took the family to Box Hill, where sons Peter and Toby were born, and where he and Ros later fostered John from a war-torn background.
Collins worked in advertising agencies as a copywriter and then formed his own business, Collins Advertising, in a home-made office next to the two-storey cubby house he lovingly built for his children.
In the short story The Value of a Nail (Meanjin, 1984), Collins eulogised that great Australian institution the hardware store, and in real life he gained creative pleasure from woodwork, establishing the Toby Toys range for toddlers.
He wrote articles and short stories for magazines and newspapers, many of which were published in anthologies, and a radio play called Shabbatai!, which is an irreverent take on a bizarre character in Jewish history.
A prize-winning short story, The Balconies, provided the impetus for The Boys from Bondi, published by University of Queensland Press in 1987. But readers wanted to know what happened next. The sequel, Going Home, was published in 1993, and Joshua (1995) completed the trilogy.
The three titles were published in 2001 as the single-volume A Promised Land? The book was described as one of the significant family sagas of Australian youth. Collins chose the title to reflect the complex feelings his central characters have towards Australia and Israel.
The sea, beach and sun were always the restorative elements in his life. The beach had been his haven from the often confusing world around him, and as Zwicky put it, the distant, murderous thunder of a world at war.
In Melbourne, he and Ros returned to Elwood for their last 20 years together with their family, a new-old circle of friends and another of his great pleasures, sailing.
Collins is survived by his wife Ros, sons Daniel, Peter and Toby, daughter-in-law Rhonda, grandsons Joshua, Eli and Isaac and foster son John.
This tribute was compiled by members of the Collins family.