This ‘If Only’ theme came to me yesterday reading a book of short stories by Australian authors found at an opp shop which contains a story by author Barry Dickins… Here’s a paragraph from a story titled… ‘To the Beach Then, Eh?’
‘We’d stroll down (from the train station) to the foreshore, walking along the cool, painted lines in the middle of some sleepy beach backstreet in awe of the colour blue, the silent yachts, piss stained kiosks and the RSL.
We’d find a spot, though the finding of a spot is harder than it seems. Wherever people flop, they have that righteous way of behaving as though they owned it, be it a bit of old sand near a wall, or a coin operated barbecue on the banks of the Yarra.
Mum’d put down a blanket and unpack the chooks and sun cream, …’
How evocative! Barry is such a keen observer, he manages to so evocatively convey images through words, his writing is so … realistic. Perhaps there is a genre for his work… something like ‘existential realism’ maybe?
I grew up in a parallel universe to Barry Dickins, but forty or so kilometres away, on the other side of Melbourne, across the Yarra. Like Barry’s family our family didn’t have a car. Reservoir was almost as far from Clayton as Sydney as far as we were concerned. My family also caught the train to beachside suburbs such as Aspendale, Sandringham and Mordialloc, the latter for the Department of Army’s Christmas Party. My father worked for the Department of Army and each year an ‘army duck’, complete with Father Christmas, would come into view and on to the shore at Mordialloc, opening up to take excited children for a trip on the bay where presents would be distributed.
I can so easily relate to the memories of growing up Barry recounts in many of his stories, they titillate my brain cells, help to retrieve old memories and lead to dreaming and reflection.
I became a loyal follower of Barry’s work in the mid-eighties after reading a story about a visit to a fish and chip shop in Oakleigh in ‘What the Dickins’, published in 1985. This story represented a turning point for me. It made me laugh, made me reflect on fish and chip shops I had known, brought home that the skilful writing about everyday sorts of memories, realities could indeed be very engaging.
Every now and again the paths in our parallel universes have crossed. In the early 1980’s, living in Melbourne, I followed poetry events in Melbourne pubs. Barry would often be there, sometimes with his brother, Robbo. Usually somewhat inebriated and in deep conversation with Robbo, he would always rise to the occasion when invited to read poetry. Artist friends from Daylesford knew Barry, and we would see him at Carlton pubs when we visited Melbourne. We were thrilled when he married and had a son, however worried that his drinking might become a problem.
Later in the eighties I found we had a friend in common, the writer John Hepworth, and I would hear about Barry occasionally from John.
Moving to Benalla in the late 90’s, it seemed my Oakleigh High School friend Ivan Durrant was also a friend of Barry’s. Barry opened Ivan’s exhibitions at the Benalla Art Gallery for a number of years and engaged as an artist himself in an enormously successful community exhibition at the Benalla Art Gallery not long after I arrived.
A year or so ago Barry gave a writer’s session at the Benalla Library. Seeing another opportunity to connect to Barry’s world again, not being sure what the ravages of ill health, a failed marriage, depression and periods of heavy drinking might have had on him, I ‘booked in’. I’m so glad I did. Whatever the ravages of time may have been, he was still the wonderfully spirited, comedic, authentic Barry Dickins of old, still able to engage and entertain his audience throughout.
Barry seemed at a loss as the audience departed, having a few hours to spare before taking the train back to Melbourne. I introduced myself and suggested perhaps taking him for a drive to fill in the time. I drove him out to Molyullah to my sister’s farm, as being out ‘in the bush’ would be such a change; called in to see his friend Simon Klose, who had been director at the Gallery when Barry opened Ivan’s exhibitions and participated in the community exhibition. We happily filled in time, chatting about mutual friends until it was time for him to catch the train back to Melbourne and on to Reservoir.
I’ve lost touch again but hope he’s well and that he’s still writing… of course I know he will be.
Struggling over words when writing this piece for our writing group today my question remains…
’If only I could write like Barry Dickins!’… memoire writer extraordinaire!