Growing up in Fawkner Street, St. Kilda, was an adventure, as I have written of in the past.
My earliest recollections were of the Barkly Hotel on our street corner. In those days a rough and tumble pub, not helped by the archaic 6pm closing times of the day. That meant that all pubs had to stop serving alcohol by 6pm (can you believe it?) and so men, and women, would rush there from their day jobs and with less than thirty minutes or so would order six or seven or eight pints, line them up and down them in record time. All this did was ensure that there’d be a blood bath outside the pub most nights giving the poor, who couldn’t afford to go to Festival Hall and see professional boxing, free front row seats as unhappy drunk patrons settled their imagined differences with their fists. It looked quote poetic on reflection. A kind of slow motion, weird, drunkards dance.
Everywhere there seemed to be street theatre happening.
People falling out of pubs, or pushing to get in before closing time. Children, crying in strollers, waiting for dad or mum to drink their fill and return to responsibility. Maybe.
Mr. and Mrs. Kilpatrick’s Milk Bar was a few doors down and I’d be sent to get supplies for the dinner meal most nights, so I always got a first hand look at the action. Who needed to read “Treasure Island” for thrills when all this was happening outside your door?
My mum never did a shopping list. She was an improve artist when she cooked. My dad, who was jockey size, used to joke that he’d have been 6’4″ if my mum hadn’t sent him on so many errands. It usually went something like this…
“Hey Jack, can you walk up to the Kilpatrick’s and get some milk?”
“Is that all you need?” Dad would ask.
“Yes. That’ll do.”
So off he’d go.
Upon his return he’d be met with…
“Oh. And I need some butter.”
At this point he’d look at me with the greatest look of exasperation seen since the great Oliver Hardy.
He’d put the milk down, loudly, on the kitchen table and through tight lips and clenched teeth would again enquire, “Now…is that all you need?”
“Yes, that’ll do me, Jacky,” my mum would assure him. So, off he’d go again. Dutifully walking up the street to ensure we finally got something to eat as our in-house masterchef toiled away.
No sooner would he get in the door when he’d hear, “Oh and I could use some more flour too.”
I can’t repeat what my father’s response would be to this. But he certainly made it clear to my mum what she could do with the dinner.
Who needed television? Every night at my place we had a live comedy sketch worthy of anything Laural & Hardy, Buster Keaton or Chaplin ever did. Maybe that’s why it was easy to develop a sense of humour. You had to look at the funny side of things or go mad. Or kill someone. To be totally honest some nights the two of them did attempt the latter but that’s a whole other chapter and darker in tone.
Looking back, my upbringing destined me for the theatre. Franz Kafka would’ve felt right at home at our table. The bizarre was normal to us.
Both my parents were originals. Characters. I have not found their like in anyone else in all my years. Perhaps that’s why they were so well loved. They made people laugh, either intentionally or not. When my father died, the crowd couldn’t squeeze into St. Colman’s Church on Carlisle Street and overflowed onto the pavement outside. Tough men who’d worked with him sobbed like children and tried to explain to me how much he’d meant to them. Didn’t they think I knew?
My mother outlived my dad by over twenty so her funeral didn’t achieve the same standing room only crowd but that was only for the simple fact that so many of her friends and family were already gone by then. But the outpouring of grief was just as intense. Many couldn’t contemplate a world without Pearl. I must confess that this writer still struggles with it himself.
Being originals meant both of them were irreplaceable.
If my mum wanted to go and see a romantic film at the classy Victory Theatre my dad would convince her that, while she was enjoying Grace Kelly and Cary Grant act in a story that must’ve seemed almost science fiction to the world she knew, he’d take me and go see a man’s movie at the nearby Memo Theatre. The once beautiful art deco Memo had fallen into disrepair in my youth and I remember my dad affectionately calling it “the Flea Pit.” The first such movie outing between us men was “The Creature From The Black Lagoon.” I was three years old. I had nightmares for years. Child psychology wasn’t a concept in those days. No one ever thought about how things might harm or unnerve a child. You either coped with it…or harden the fuck up!
Another place I’ll always remember was Candy Corner. It was a sublime lolly shop and was situated across the road from Luna Park and the Palais Theatre. When my mum got a part time job there I thought I was the luckiest kid in the world and was so proud of her. I used to brag about it to my friends. Suddenly I had influence. I was somebody once removed from a somebody. Yep, I learned how powerful it was to have connections. Kids would beg me to accompany them into the shop while they ordered in the hope that my mum would think they were my pals and give them a very generous serving of their favourites. And she always did.
When she lost her job there, perhaps for being over generous, I lost a few friends too. Another life lesson. More grounding for a future in showbiz.
My dad had been a hurdle jockey, as were his two brothers. One of them, William (Bill) Howson is in the history books for winning several Grand National Steeple Chase races. But my dad gave it all away when he married so he could get a more reliable job. Did the frustration of that lead to his drinking? Watching his brother go on and become famous and wealthy? Who would know? This was the era when men didn’t talk about their problems. Nor acknowledge them. And went to their graves with the secrets of their inner feelings.
He got a job on the St. Kilda Foreshore Council and became a gardener, and a damn fine one. There was nothing he didn’t know about plants. He’d walk through a garden and pick various flowers or plants and eat them to impress you. He knew which ones you could eat and which ones would poison you. He was in charge of the O’Donnell Gardens next to Luna Park.
The head of Luna Park in those days was Mr. Keith Marshall, a man I remember looking up to, literally, and being so impressed with the fact that he always wore a suit, collar, tie, and a fedora hat. He dressed like Melvyn Douglas in the movies. Immaculate.
After my mum’s tragic demise from a career at Candy Corner, I had a revival in popularity when Mr. Keith Marshall became friends with my dad. It was impossible not to like my father – when he was sober.
I remember Mr. Keith Marshall looking down at me and saying, “Whenever you want free tickets to Luna Park you just go to the front office and tell them you’re Jack Howson’s son – and that I personally okay however many you want. Alright my boy?”
Oh my God. Now I was bursting with pride about my dad. He had sent me to the top of the popularity charts again. For a kid this was really something. And God aka Mr. Keith Marshall had personally authorized it! I was so happy I could’ve cried, but I was a St. Kilda kid and possibly still in trauma due to the Creature from the Black Lagoon.
Almost overnight a lot of my friends returned with fanciful excuses for their absence and why they’d dropped me off their birthday party invitations. I must admit, I was becoming a bit cynical about it all.
I spent a lot of my childhood in the O’Donnell Gardens playing Robin Hood, Davy Crockett and Zorro. And rolling down those green hills until I was so dizzy I couldn’t stand. It was cheap entertainment. You had to develop an imagination and use it. I always dreamed that oneday I’d become so famous and rich that I’d have the powers that be change the name of the O’Donnell Gardens to the Henry (Jack) Howson Gardens in tribute to my dear ol’ dad. That dream still gets me to sleep.
Eventually my dad got promoted to boss of the St. Kilda Foreshore, and my mum always maintained that was his downfall. Now he had no one to answer to and the drinking escalated. It got so bad that my mum would go and sit in the gardens and watch him in order to cramp his style. This must’ve humiliated him with his workmates but there you have it. It was a situation that lasted many years and led to World War 3 being fought every night in our living room.
Most times just verbal brutality, sometimes physical. All I know is I overheard a lot of horrible nasty things that no child has a right to hear. A frightened kid standing at his half opened bedroom door watching and listening to your two heroes destroy each other’s ego and pride. And your innocence. So the little boy ran away and hid somewhere inside me.
Some people have remarked that when I laugh or am filled with joy they can actually see the little boy. Maybe it’s on those occasions he feels safe enough to come out.
He’s still very proud that his mother worked at Candy Corner, and for a time his father was friends with God – the man who ran Luna Park.
(c) Frank Howson 2014