Barry Dickens : Last Words
SOCIAL WORK : A Masterclass
Dr Mark Halloran
Barry Dickens was born in 1949 into a working class family in Reservoir, Melbourne. After leaving school at the age of 16 he worked in factories in North Melbourne for five years before he started his apprenticeship as a set painter at Channel 7. He soon began frequenting Melbourne’s La Mamma Theatre, and began writing his first short plays. He is now a prolific playwright and author, having written more than 50 plays, as well as various short stories, biographies, poems and journalistic articles. His stage play Remembering Ronald Ryan won the Victorian Premier’s Awards in 1995 as well as the Amnesty Prize for Peace Through Art. In his creative non-fiction novel Last Words Dickens once again revisits the life of Ronald Ryan, who was hung on the 3rd of February 1967, becoming the last person to be legally executed in Australia. Dickens prose masterfully recreates the infamous escape of Ronald Ryan and Peter Walker from Pentridge prison, which led to the accidental shooting of prison guard George Hodson, as well as the series of events that are now associated with one of the most shameful travesties of justice in recent Australian history. Dickens portrait of Ryan is empathetic, potentially due to their shared working class backgrounds, with Ryan shown to be a charming, wayward, non violent young man, a loving brother and a sometimes devoted husband and father. Ryan seems at times to be a victim of his own personality and life circumstance. Through Dickens we are left with the impression that he was, to some extent, as much condemned by the weight of his class and family history, as by the Bolte government who conspired to end his life for its own political expediency.
How do your values differ from those of your family?
Barry Dickens: My own values as opposed to those of my family have always been a commitment to spontaneous conversation where it perhaps annoys them as I never cease my stories that are unpublished until they are sort of edited or polished by virtue of ear bashing the loved ones at the tea table; the traditional aspects of family life can be abandoned if the father is both an egomaniac as well as a bankrupt; the terrible curse of being a writer is that you cannot be lived with nor should you be. When a male author is of use he makes the mortgage fortnightly payments easily because his books make pots of money; but when no money arrives in any way shape or form and he is still writing a nobel or memoir well after midnight it is time for his speedy removal for the greater good of his family’s outlook and hopefully sunnier future.
Do you have a favourite family story?
BD: My best story from my old family life is when my father gave all afternoon to terribly cautiously removing a very stubborn thorn that had somehow got snagged in our dog Joey’s nostrils and one half of the long stem of thorns came out of his left swollen eye and the other as I say caught in his eye; my father ever so patiently attended to him in the concrete wash trough in the old wash house and even though the creature’s legs were trembling and shaking due to the pain he stood perfectly still in order for our father to fix him up; this involved dad giving him half a cold stubby and after maybe two hours the filthy thorn was out of him and the grotty wash trough spattered with red blood and although a miniature story of family life I have seen it replayed many times in my mind’s cinema.
Do you think things happen for a reason?
BD: I think beautiful things happen for a specific reason in the randomness of the moment where for example one falls in love with another tax paying human citizen who works in Sales or something equally unendurable; but awful and ugly things happen because one is in a very bad mood and in its way one deserves it since one could have easily brightened up and looked forward to seeing one’s friends as opposed to sinking into a sulk and saying ‘Don’t ask me how I am going because I shall only have to tell you how awful a day it is for me and as a result not a single happy thing can happen to me’/ Ugly and horrid things only happen if the recipient of them has the shits. It is a common condition in The Western World to be in a crapulous mood but nothing but a drag for others who need to be merry at all costs otherwise the entire day is a write off. If you feel exceptionally happy inside you win The Midweek Tattslotto.
What do you think is your main purpose in life?
BD: The purpose of life is to thank Christ you are alive because in death you will never read Jane Austen or sip incredibly nice and delicious minestrone soup somewhere friendly; the entire meaning of life is to be grateful that your heart still works and that you can spend the whole entire year running around being incredibly kind to complete strangers and never think of yourself as being good since you half or wholly expect people to be thoughtful and even merciful to you don’t you now? If you are lucky enough to put your stuff on in the morning and go to work then you’ve kicked a goal.
What do you hope for?
BD: What I hope for is to get out of my awful flat and live at a nice suite in South Yarra in Melbourne called Saint Margaret’s that I have been in love with since I was about Twenty and just couldn’t imagine a lovelier residence right on The Fawkner Gardens and the whole atmosphere of the place is tender like the night in winter; I can imagine having contented visitors coming to see me if that home came true and I could light little fires and write fascinating novels until I won The Nobel Prize and died there in perfect peace I must say to you.
Do you think its ok to lie?
BD: It is okay to lie if you don’t mind breaking your heart doing it because lying is the most graceless way to commit suicide and is the only cancer between families; lying can be fun and fascinating and because you get away with it and become a thug as well as conceited you make this mental note to lie more often; particularly to yourself and then you are really corrupted and ready for the funny farm but will they have you? Sometimes a beautiful lie is instantly believed and you have just succeeded in bursting someone’s aorta valve by cruelty and you should be imprisoned.
What does freedom mean to you?
BD: Freedom is the exact opposite of The ALP Caucus and ennobles the spirit and soul of all who long for a free meal that is scrumptious as well as truly imaginative and it almost goes without saying that the planet is running out of style as well as panache and that most of the inhabitants of Earth no longer expect a single second of mirth or hilarity on the house as most of them have no house anyway in which to celebrate not feeling introspective or even depressed and anxious in the extreme. There is no need for a receipt for a meant kiss.
What do you think are the most important social issues today?
BD: The most important social issues are comedy and company for without either of those we tend to sink in a hole rather rapidly; comedy comes unbidden similar to tragedy although comedy is more interesting than devoting an entire afternoon to weeping into your own hands for something to do; the thing about laughter is its relative cheapness and the fact that it always comes in below budget rather like hiring Rent A Car where you know you are being duped but it is the only way to get to the office now your old car has been hammered into a cement speed bump that destroyed its front end and eben your front end in the bargain.
What beliefs do you have that you think will never change?
BD: The benefits I have that I should hope never change are a big nose that receives plenty of complimentary oxygen and the spirited company of my son who is great company and my friends who think they are; although come of them really are. The greatest benefit is being alive and having a smile which works and isn’t on automatic because nothing frightens me more than an automatic grin so that ordinary citizens resemble gangsters or Welsh tennis coaches. I shouldn’t like to see things alter too much because I am dreadfully conservative as well as wayward and always hope for the best in a world that feels bereft of best.
Do you believe in the supernatural?
BD: The Supernatural in life is just getting quietly dressed and finding your teeth; the rest is in the world of the prosaic like a perfectly boring bookstore where the staff sip coffees in front of you even when you are doing a book signing. The Supernatural is someone you never met liking you spontaneously although hating your new book. After being divorced anything nice is Supernatural such as a not bad curry puff that was four of them for six bucks which was right on your budget as it turns out. A chemist who actually listens to you is Supernatural of course because none of them do and all of them never weary of talking down to you and selling you the wrong sore throat lozenges probably deliberately.
Is any religious text important to you?
BD: The most important religion to me is luck and not The Anglican Church which has absolutely nothing whatever to do with luck as it turns out and more to do with surface appearances and what sort of BMW you drive at the moment; real religion seems to me a simple cheerfulness but then again that is the current mindset of Terrorists. Religion feels like relaxing and taking it easy but even contemporary prayer and mindless meditation is no different really from eavesdropping on a fridge. The only religious text of greater or holy meaning for me at least Is The Genesis contained in The King James Version of The Bible Because the language is poetry and not dogma and as a child or a man I paused to contemplate it the result was perfect peace. The style of the writing is so divine it has never been equaled and cannot even be imitated; when I read it now it is still perfect and I guess I feel the sin of envy as I gorge it up and secretly wish I had sat down in my flat one morning quite early and knocked it out for publication in the sure knowledge it will go into several editions.
What do you like the best about your body?
BD: The best thing about my body is my nose which is pretty big for a nose but I just don’t give a hoot, it is fine and breathes wholeheartedly for me in my nightly repose although it snuffles from time to time and itches but that is merely to attract attention to itself; my own dear nose has experienced lots of men’s fists hitting it very hard and even often but today it is never hit as I don’t go into bars much. I like its reliability and texture and it seems to have more say than other organs of mine in my daily affairs and what have you; I could go nowhere without it and am only ever truly happy when a pretty woman is kissing it and then I feel justified in having a big one but one that rules the remainder of me day and night to say the least.
What do you think would be the best thing about being the opposite gender?
BD: The highlight of being the other gender is the lovely oppositeness of it and the rarity of being rather incomparable when comfortably seated next to a ballerina from another time and another country I should say; it is delirious and mysterious to be a man and totally relaxed in the amusing company of a girl or a woman; either are preferable to living alone and talking to your shoe and having to dine with nobody else around; sometimes in my dreams I am making lighthearted conversation with a female from heaven who likes me to read to her from the life of Chopin in such a way only a man like me could do that and only then am I sure I like my gender enough to keep it.
Who is the best teacher you have ever had?
BD: My best leader or teacher was my mother who died two years ago whom I miss daily and sometimes talk to as a matter of fact since there is no one remotely as funny as she used to be and no one who taught me how to listen better than she did; she was a very great mimic and could easily impersonate just about anyone she was with socially or talk like god when she cried her head off due to clinical depression and anxiety she suffered from all her life and in all the time we did together no one was so subtle or wise or so willing to play the fool because of the profound security the true fool feels when he or she is kidding with life to make sure it doesn’t hurt all that much when you are down for the count.
Have you ever been lost?
BD: I was lost once in a snowy peak long ago whilst bush walking alongside my father and because he was insanely fit and ever so athletic he just marched on ignoring me and in the end I fell down a hole in this freezing stuff called ice and snow and I was stuck there for hours actually calling out his name of daddy over and over until he heard me and got me out of there; i was about twelve years old and it took me a fortnight really to forgive him.
What was your favourite book as a child?
BD: My favourite book as a child was The Wind In The Willows that my mother read to me aloud in the company of my slightly older brother called John in the freezing cold bungalow at the rear of our our old home; the way they read it was as though we who listened to it had really written it and even executed the lovely drawings that illustrated it;’ both parents were excellent readers and brilliant nonchalant actors and they made each special scene or sentence come alive with the acuteness of those mystifying;y real characters.
If I asked a good friend of yours what you were good at, what would they say?
BD: A good friend hopefully say i was good at love because I have hated losing a single friend all through my life of sixty eight years almost and it kills me when I lose even an acquaintance as opposed to someone I have known intimately all my life or at least a decent portion of my life; I try to see my best friends whenever that suits them in order to know them better of course and to see how their children are going; it would devastate me if i was thought to be a half hearted friend and someone selfish and unreliable in fact a cad!
What stays the same in your life, no matter how much other things change?
BD: What stays the same despite everything is kindness which is probably all we shall be remembered for once we are gone from here; if you are being kind you are too busy to think about your standing in a society that has become mean and hard without ever trying to have a rapport with the wind or a voice of a song that might distract the sun for a fraction of a second and that is all you can ask if you should like to be contented and probably happy.
Last Words: The hanging of Ronald Ryan by Barry Dickins
Last Words is the story of Ronald Ryan, the last man hanged in Australia. Fifty years after his death, questions remain unanswered. Ryan had been found guilty of murdering prison officer George Hodson during an escape from Pentridge Prison with fellow inmate Peter Walker. But did he really fire the bullet that killed Hodson? A Hardie Grant Books book.
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