I dreamed that you will come to me
In the land of no surprise
And you will kiss my lips
And look into my eyes
And I will say to you
Behold the holy sign
“All was lost, all was lost”
Well everything that was mine
But your presence now
Renews my belief
That true love
Springs from grief
And all the tears we shed
Along the way
Got us through the night
To this brighter day
Why would anyone become a writer? Especially in a world that doesn’t seem to read anymore. Or go to the theatre, or go to the movies to see anything other than comic book heroes. Good question.
All the great writers were mostly drunks. Coincidence? Or is there a cost for looking too long into the abyss and reporting back to the good folk what they’re too timid to experience for themselves? Springsteen once wrote that there is a darkness at the edge of town. No, that darkness lies within us all. Each one of us has the latent potential to be a Hitler or a Christ. God has cleverly given us free will to choose our own poison. And the highly sensitive among us reach for the bottle, or the harder stuff, in order to numb ourselves to the responsibilities of that choice.
When I was at school I just couldn’t concentrate on anything. I was hopeless. Sometimes I feel sorry for those who attempted to teach me anything. Not sure if my undisciplined mind was a result of the trauma I witnessed most nights in my abusive family home, or I had what is now diagnosed as ADD. One day the headmaster of the school phoned my mother for a meeting to question her as to why her son had the highest I.Q at the school and the lowest grades. She was at a loss for words. But not me. Words always came easy to me. In fact I could talk myself out of any beating I was about to receive from a Christian Brother. That was quite a feat considering the relish they got from handing out such brutal punishment. These guys would’ve been more at home as members of the Third Reich than Jesus’ band of 12. But talk my way out I did. So, words became my friend, my salvation. And humour protected me from the cruel slings of other peer group bullies. I could always hysterically put myself down before anyone else had the chance to. Timing was everything. Playing the court jester got me through my troubled youth and shielded me from revealing my true self. And what was that? I was scared of everything and everyone. I felt like an alien most of the time in a strange world that only threw contradictions at you.
My refuge again and again were words. The only subjects at school that I attained any respectable grades for were Art, English and Religious Knowledge. The latter because I loved hearing all the Biblical stories and for some reason remembered every detail. They were filled with such amazing imagery and drama. Oh, and miracles. I guess I was depending on a miracle to happen in my life that would save me. And this Jesus character sounded like he might’ve been the only person who would’ve taken the time to understand me. Whether he was the Messiah or not is up for debate, but he sure sounded like a nice man. And like me, and all the other loners and misfits in the world, grossly misunderstood. I never forgot those stories and if nothing else they were great morality word plays.
Due to my restless mind I found it too difficult to persevere and read a book through to the end. But I tried again and again to achieve this. Thank God I did because I now must own over a thousand books that I cherish and have taught me more than I ever learnt at school. I always tell people I was self educated and that’s the truth of it. All my education took place in a class of one. In many ways, books saved my life.
My introduction to books began when I was a small child and my Irish grandmother would sit me on her lap and read aloud the adventures of Noddy in Toyland. We bonded through the whole Noddy series until she was taken from me when I was two.
The first book that hooked me enough to finish was, ironically, “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott. I guess it proved that I had a fascination with the mystery of women from an early age. This of course led to much heartache and my premature death but that’s a whole other story. Either that, or Ms. Alcott was one helluva writer that captured my imagination and kept me turning the pages. By the end of the book I felt I knew all the characters and cared enough about them to shed some tears. The mark of a great writer.
After that I read Enid Blyton’s book series “The Famous Five” followed by “The Secret Seven.” Then I graduated to “Biggles,” and then many books about the Wild West that introduced me to such colourful characters as Davy Crockett. Kit Carson, Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp, Jesse James, Billy The Kid etc., etc., etc. Yep, who needed to time travel or see the world when you had books?
Then in my late teen years I read “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald and my life really did change. A book about the ultimate loner always surrounded by a party of people. I savoured every word in that book – it’s prose was exquisite and the story heartbreaking. It foretold me that following the wrong dreams can get you killed. Reading Fitzgerald was like finding a new best friend. I understood him. And from what I read I knew he understood me. After that I read all six of his novels and every short story he ever wrote. I couldn’t get enough of his words and the insight he gave into the human heart. It really was like he’d read my letters or thoughts and knew me intimately. Of course being part Irish, like me, virtually every story ended in death or heartbreak. He painted such a romantic but dangerous world where his characters always paid a high price for caring too much.
Fitzgerald’s own life was cut short by too much booze and heartbreak topped off by rejection in Hollywood. But he remains my friend and I reread “Gatsby” every couple of years. It never fails to move me. Hollywood has never been able to pull off a wholly successful film treatment of it for the simple reason that most of the truly beautiful stuff in the book are the thoughts in the characters heads, and that’s impossible to shoot. Films are about action. Fitzgerald’s writing is about emotions. Unless you do endless voice-overs and that usually renders your movie as exciting as porridge. That’s why the great Fitzgerald had such a hard time of it in Hollywood trying to make it as a screenwriter in order to net enough money to keep his wife Zelda in a mental home and pay for his daughter’s schooling. He died a broken, despairing, weary man old before his time.
Like Gatsby, killed by the wrong dream.
I came to Charles Dickens late. Not sure why that was but come to him I did. The first book of his I chose to read was “Great Expectations” and was astounded. To me it remains one of the greatest novels of all time. And in my opinion he is right up there with Shakespeare.
I heard that Dickens original ending to “Great Expectations” was tragic and certainly all roads in the book are leading there. But his publisher leaned on him to come up with a more upbeat ending. Dickens listened, went away and rewrote it, and what he does is simply sublime. He gives it a happy ending that is so bitter sweet he moves us to tears as our damaged leading characters come together to try and seek a way forward, and into the sunlight. It is so beautiful my hands trembled as I read the final pages. This novel alone would’ve assured his place among the giants of literature, but he did it again and again, novel after novel – “Oliver Twist,” “David Copperfield,” “Nicholas Nickleby,” “Hard Times,” “A Christmas Carol,” and “A Tale of Two Cities” (another ending that is so exquisitely executed as our flawed hero rises to the most noble of acts, laying down his wasted life so that others may live and find the joy that had always eluded him. Death giving his meaningless life a meaning. If there’s a better speech than his final words, I would surely love to know about it.
After Dickens I discovered Hemingway, Steinbeck, Schulberg, Shakespeare, O’Hara, Maugham, Hammett, Greene, Wilde, Twain, Isherwood, Chandler, Huxley, Ephron and many others.
All complex people, flawed, contradictory, confused, and yet so much wiser in their work than in life. Perhaps the writing down of stories and emotions helped them understand themselves.
It’s interesting how great writing never dates. You may think that picking up something that was written a hundred years ago or, in some cases longer, couldn’t possibly be relevant to your life. But the surprising revelation is that the emotions felt are timeless. Just different scenery and choice of words. But at the heart of every great story is just another human being trying to solve the same problems, whilst dealing with the same heartaches, pressures and obstacles. The universal human emotion. If you write the truth in its naked honesty it will always connect – now, tomorrow, a thousand years from now.
It teaches us that we are not alone. We are all in this together, wandering around a desert seeking an answer to why we are here. And awaiting that opportunity to rise to the potential of who we could be.
John Wayne once said, “Courage is being scared to death…and saddling up anyway.”
It was one of those days neither here nor there in the life of Felix Appleton. He had experienced the dizzying heights and the devastating plummets of a life lived in the circus ring of the performing arts. He was often praised as a born performer but wasn’t sure of the truth in that. He hadn’t sprung from the womb singing and uttering funny one-liners. Perhaps his screaming was in tune? He didn’t know and was not about to reinvent his life for the joy of some hungry reporter. If he had a talent to amuse, it had come from pain and the ability to live with it. He used to say, “Show me an artist who hasn’t suffered, and I’ll show you a phoney.”
He was born in a public hospital and taken home in a taxi to a single-fronted weatherboard house in a street not many people walked down. It was in this small modest home that he got to know his parents, both workers who had struggled for their existence and carried the scars of their battles and defeats on their faces as proudly as old soldiers displayed their medals. They smiled with sad expressions and their eyes brimmed with the waters of a joy that’d rarely found the opportunity to flow. Felix instantly fell in love with them and knew he’d found the right home. His parents were that dying breed called good people. Yes, they were tremendously flawed if one was to appoint a critic to write a cold and detached review of their lives, but that critic would’ve missed the value entirely. Like the first critics to review “Citizen Kane” and “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” they would’ve been dismissed as “irrelevant,” “a misstep,” “a disaster of epic proportions.” But what do critics know? Because of deadlines they have to rush to judgement and, more times than not, in their haste they miss the point. The true worth of something is judged in time and weighed by the impact it leaves behind in all those changed by having experienced it.
Thus Felix was nurtured through his first steps into this world by two unsung national treasures. He inherited from them the gifts to love with all the loyalty of the poor; the joy in giving away his last coin, cigarette or piece of advice to someone in greater need; the strength to stand by your friend through their mistakes, no matter how unpopular that stance may be. For who among us is not flawed when day is done? As long as there is no meanness in it, all is forgiven. Like the Irish mantra, “No fear, no spite, no envy.”
Oh, and never show your enemies you’re hurting. No one should be
rewarded for their dark actions.
So it was from this environment that Felix went forth into the world. His parents had taken him to Luna Park, and the circus, and to Hollywood movies many times. He had grown to love the lights and the laughter and the collective tears of a reinvented world so much so that he joined it. “Hi diddle-ee dee an actor’s life for me.” He became an actor and acted out all the emotions he had experienced in his little childhood home – all the anger, the heartache, and the humour that can be found in any awkward situation that Life can throw at one.
Felix was praised for his talent to wring insight from any character he portrayed. Was he born with this gift? No, he was born into it. And how could it be called a gift when it comes at such a cost?
He never developed an arrogant ego, for his parents had clothed him in humility. He never cut down a rival due to envy, for he was sure that person’s journey had been as difficult as his. And he never said goodbye to any friend (whether it be man, woman or child) without tagging it with the words “I love you” for he had learnt that in this life we are never guaranteed of seeing that person again.
Felix was now an old man who kept to himself. He hated few things in Life but moving was one of them. It always signalled the end of an era and the beginning of a new one. And as such he not only found it physically exhausting but emotionally draining. He was hoping this recent move would be his last. Not that he was morbid. Far from it. He saw a joke in everything, and put that down to the Irish blood from his mother’s side. The ability to get through even the darkest defeat with a funny line. He thought one shouldn’t take this life too seriously, after all, it’s just a long elongated dream. And dreams come and go. He was just about through this dream and hoped he’d performed as well as he could, given the extraordinary circumstances that had occasionally rained on him. And that he’d given more than he’d taken from this world, for he understood that there was a delicate balance to everything and most of the problems in this world are caused by man’s ego arrogantly tampering with that balance. He’d learnt to let it be. To leave affairs of the heart well enough alone. To respect what you don’t understand. And to do no one any purposeful harm.
When he looked back at his life he was now able to smile at not only the good parts but also the bad. For out of every disaster he had learned a huge lesson. And from great lessons learned comes great wisdom. Yes, if there is a God, Felix thought, he’s a very clever bastard.
Felix didn’t know if he’d be remembered. He felt it didn’t much matter because he’d be dead. And so would all those whose opinions meant something to him. Anyway, who wants a whole bunch of strangers talking about you and dissecting you after you’re gone, and getting it all wrong?
Still, he hoped, if there was another dimension or heaven or universe one goes to, he’d still be able to remember his parents. They were good people. They had given him valuable parts of themselves. And they were worth remembering.
Sorry for not seeing you but your beauty blinded me to who you really are. With each feature vying for attention it is easy to lose focus as to where perfection ends and heaven begins. Perhaps your beauty just confirms that there is such a thing as heaven, as well as the painful realisation that it will be denied to us on this earth. God allows us to make fools of ourselves in your presence by uttering the wrong word killing every perfect moment, and our chance to have had you. For the way to Him must truly be paved by our humility.
I have walked with wise men and none told how to handle you. Perhaps they were wise enough to know that such a thing cannot be handled as that would reduce it to the grubby conversations of hungry men. Like knowing dissipates the magic from a Houdini trick. But perhaps the truth to why they never prepared me for you was because you had broken them too on their journey to wisdom, stopping only briefly in bitterness – the platform on which we must all kill time, frantically searching the night for any sign of approaching light, waiting for a train that never comes.
I check my ticket stub and notice that I will be seated in carriage D with all the sad men. Old before their time, wearied to exhaustion from striving too hard and too long to have it all.
Why didn’t my mother warn me that I would always end up alone and that my mission in life was not to have love, but to write about it?
We told each other we had a good life full of ginger biscuits and roast dinners. I suppose it reminded me of my youth waking up Sunday mornings to the smell of something cooking and the excited anticipation of a family gathering.
I’m all that exists of that family now. So, in my defence, I will plead guilty to attempting to bring this ritual into our lives in the hope of a shared familiarity or perhaps the conjuring up of ghosts from the past. Futile dreams were our dessert. Big serves to disguise the cold reality that the best in us was gone. All that remains are the broken pieces of empty dishes. And the broken after dinner stories of broken lives that harbour in my memory and things I dream at night.
There were glimpses of great love in my family but thinly wedged between slabs of anger, recriminations, abuse, guilt and tears. Perhaps that’s what makes those glimpses glow so warmly in my heart.
You wanted a feeling of family and so did I but we were loveless refugees on the run and our pantomime of make-believe was a farce that didn’t hold up to intelligent scrutiny. But the first thing to die in such a delusion is intelligence. We played our roles with conviction but were hopelessly miscast, or perhaps just too old for believability.
We had a life of ginger biscuits and roast dinners but that was all. There we were, unarmed, falling where we stood in the small talk and repressed resentment that neither of us got what we had wanted. The past can’t be repeated, excluding the bad bits, by acting out the good. There is no cutting room floor anymore. Gone. All gone. My youth. My dreams of love. My good will to others. My mistakes of the heart. My misplaced loyalty to all the wrong people. Gone. And soon I will be gone, and all that will remain will be words. And people’s rushed and conflicting judgement of who they thought I was.
Fortunately there will be no one to play act the glimpses of my failed Quixotic quests to harness some joy in myself, and in others.
I went to town
And had some fun
I'd spent all my money
Before day was done
The buildings were tall
And they blocked the sun
I went to town
And had some fun
I returned home
Before night fell
I kissed all the women
But I won't tell
They said they loved me
Must've thought I was dumb
I went to town
And had some fun
I was born in St.Kilda
Lived most of my life here
Travelled the world searching for what was
Probably already found
And like the prodigal son I returned
My face lined with lessons learned
To the only place that ever felt to me like home
My childhood was spent in Fawkner Street
It was for a time my whole world
Among our neighbours were ordinary battlers
Sly grog salesmen
Public enemy Number one
Norm Bradshaw nicknamed The Beast for good reason
When he wasn't on the run
So did his in-laws The Shannons
and our next door neighbour, the Aussie equivalent of Bonnie Parker -
Colourful big-hearted contradictory characters
I remember the night that several rival gangsters
Kicked in Pretty Dulcie's front door and walked down her corridor
Spraying gun shots
One stray bullet came through our wall
and if it'd been a little further to the left
Somebody else would be standing here today
The 6 o'clock swill at the Barkly Hotel
Produced enough colourful characters and street poetry
To fill a thousand pulp fiction novels
There was no better grounding to be a writer or an actor
Than to stand on the corner of Fawkner Street and Barkly
And watch the cavalcade of originals spew out onto the street
and wander home in what seemed like a slow motion drunkard's dance
Two steps to the left, three to the right
Mr. & Mrs. Kilpatrick owned the corner Milk Bar
And were the moral guardians of the neighbourhood
If you were having a poor week
They'd give you supplies and keep a tab
You survived on your word and good name
In those days people trusted each other
My father worked for the St. Kilda Foreshore for over 30 years
His little office was under the biggest dip in Luna Park's Scenic Railway
and he looked after all the beaches as well as the O'Donnell Gardens
The latter was where a lot of my boyhood was spent
Playing while he worked
In my mind recreating Sherwood Forest, the Alamo and every John Wayne movie
Hiding in the bushes, climbing trees, attacking the cavalry
Developing an imagination
Robin Hood, Peter Pan, Davy Crockett and Spiderman
I fought beside them
Blood brothers every one
We used to save the world before each day was done
My mum worked across the road at Candy Corner
To me, in my memory, still the best lolly shop in the world bar none
And my dad, during the summer months
Would work a second job at night
Running the ferris wheel at the sideshows to the right of the Palais
My first public appearance was on the stage of the St. Kilda Town Hall
at the age of seven, performing "Give My Regards To Broadway"
Although to us, Broadway may as well have been the moon
Years later my father actually died in an ambulance outside the Town Hall
It was a fitting place for him to leave this world
For you see, our world was St. Kilda
It was engraved in our hearts
Everyone I have mentioned, other than me
Have gone now
They are ghosts that haunt these streets
and boulevards and beaches
You hear their faraway laughter on the wind
and see their outlines in the mist of dawn
The spiritual guardians of a place that was every bit as unique
as Times Square, or Soho, or Wanchai
Every weekend people from all over Melbourne would jump a tram
Or a train and come to St. Kilda
To see the freaks, hear the music, eat the exotic European food,
Rub shoulders with the ten most wanted
Poke fun at the bohemians
Sneak a guilty sidewards glance at the painted ladies
Eat the cakes of a thousand calories
And parade along the promenade with someone special
Please, for sake of all those ghosts,
Don't let the soul of St. Kilda die
Atmosphere can't be planned or created
It is a magic
Like stardust from the Gods
And once it's gone
It can't be explained
And it can't be fabricated
It's not a trick of Houdini
There is no recipe
It can't be reduced to something mortals can understand
But at the heart of it there is a truth
People don't come to experience a strip mall
Even if it has been exquisitely designed
They come to experience Life
That to me is St. Kilda
And our Art
Tells the world who we are
What we think
And where we come from
And like Davy Crockett at the Alamo
I'll defend that till the end
(Speech delivered at the opening of the St. Kilda Arts Crawl
September 21, 2017.)