As an Aboriginal street kid growing up in the slums of Carlton in the 1940s and ’50s, Tovey experienced homelessness, neglect and sexual abuse. With an alcoholic mother and a father in prison, Tovey admits he was “rather wild”. By the age of 12 he was working as a rent-boy.
Tovey’s one-man play Little Black Bastard, which he is performing for the Midsumma Festival, tells the story of his troubled early life. His stint in Pentridge came when he was 17, after the police raided a drag party in Albert Park. Tovey claims he was set-up and charged with “the abominable crime of buggery”. During his three weeks in jail awaiting sentence he considered taking his own life…
Arriving in London in 1960 with less than £1 in his pocket, Tovey landed TV work as a dancer and singer. By 1961 he had become a principal dancer with Sadler’s Wells and from there his career steadily gathered momentum. As an actor he shared the stage with Vera Lynn, Judy Garland and Steven Berkoff, while later he taught movement at RADA. Selected to do the original choreography for the West End musical The Boyfriend, Tovey’s research into the 1920s opened up yet more doors. He became a consultant on a range of films, from The Great Gatsby to Murder on the Orient Express, and used his specialist knowledge to open a decorative art gallery in Fulham.
But it wasn’t until his long-term lover died of an AIDS-related brain infection in 1986 that Tovey finally began to acknowledge his indigenous roots. “It was really a defining moment for me,” he says. “And I just thought, ‘Now I’ve been through all this, why do I have to lie about being Aboriginal any more?'”
Since returning to Australia, Tovey has made up for lost time by becoming an activist for indigenous rights. Among his many charity commitments, he is involved in the juvenile justice system, meeting young offenders and speaking in prisons to give hope to Aboriginal youths. “It’s too late to help people of my generation, but the cycle of alcoholism and petrol sniffing has to be broken somewhere for younger people.”…
Among the dark memories he had tried to suppress were the years of sexual abuse he and his sister suffered at the hands of their foster father. “I grew up thinking that was how grown-up people showed they cared about you,” he says. “I thought it was a sign of affection.”
Now Tovey is able to talk freely about his past without a hint of self-pity. “One of the pluses is that I’ve survived,” he says quietly. “I have nothing to be bitter about.”
Tovey’s story is inspiring, true, and an object lesson in what can happen despite the worst of circumstances, an antidote to cynicism, a corrective for stereotypical thinking, and a testimony to human strength and tenacity beyond anything I have ever known or done. He is a friend of one of my colleagues at The Mine, where he has been to talk to senior students. It is worth noting too, that having been away for so long he has sometimes had to confront the indigenous community to be more proactive and entrepreneurial.
I just borrowed his book (there is also the stage version, a monologue by Tovey himself, referred to above) Little Black Bastard (Hodder 2004) from Surry Hills Library. Part of his childhood was spent in Elizabeth Street Redfern, in one of the shops near the South Sydney Uniting Church. Read Christopher Bantick’s review in The Age.
…Tovey is Aboriginal. His story is, in part, about what being indigenous was like in a restrictive and prejudiced Melbourne of the 1940s and ’50s. His was a childhood measured in poverty, ridicule and sexual abuse…
Besides his clear artistic interest and developing skill as a dancer, Tovey was, by the mid-1950s, also a teenage rent-boy. “I was inured to the act of sex,” he says. “My obvious good looks, exotically coloured body and total lack of morals were my entree to some of the best addresses in Melbourne.”
It was also at this time, he says, that the defining moment in his life occurred.
After a police raid on a drag party in Albert Park that Tovey was attending, he was charged with buggery. He was sent to Pentridge. He was soon released, but not before he went through his own dark night of the soul. He contemplated suicide and was visited by a profound sense of his indigenous self.
Jail also defined his identity in another way. Tovey, before Pentridge, had been known as Noel Morton. On release, he decided to break with his old life and enlisted for national service. All applicants were asked whether they had criminal records, so Tovey took Mumma’s father’s name and began his new life as Noel Christian Tovey.
Like many of his generation, Tovey, in 1960, left Australia for England. Defying his homosexuality, he married and travelled with his new wife. The marriage produced a daughter but soon failed and Tovey found true happiness with Dave, to whom the book is dedicated, in London.
London offered him a creative and racially diverse environment. He flourished and became a theatre director, a gallery owner and choreographer. On his return to Australia from England in 1990, his hugely successful stage monologue, Little Black Bastard, delivered in the Carlton Court House Theatre, encapsulated much of his life.
Beyond its beginnings in Carlton’s gutters, the book is a well-observed portrait of 6 o’clock-swill Melbourne. Tovey’s recollections of the poet, Harold Stewart – one of the hoaxers in the Ern Malley literary scandal – and the comet-like impact on Melbourne of Mirka and Georges Mora are just two of many finely related vignettes.