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Non-fiction reviews


Barry Dickins - I Love to Live

24 September 1991

I Love to Live: The Fabulous Life of Barry Dickins
Barry Dickins

Published in The Age

You would expect a book with a title this bad to be the autobiography of Ernie Sigley, Ray Martin or Daryl Somers, to be crammed with career highlights, and to begin with some twaddle about the subject's wonderful parents.

But this is the unpretentious story of Melbourne's Barry Dickins - who doesn't seem to have a career; and whose mother was wont to roll a sausage in breadcrumbs, spear it with a fork and say, "Sorry". And it begins, "It is true that I adore alcohol."

It restores a little faith in the untutored human spirit that an academic failure such as Dickins can come from nowhere - or, worse, Reservoir - and in time lay claim to such a funny, wry and original view of post-War Melbourne suburbia.

During the period Dickins was being brutalised by the Reservoir Baptist Church Assembly, I was interred in another mass grave for human feelings, Brighton Grammar School. BGS boys knew the northern suburbs were out there somewhere, along with China and Brazil. I occasionally heard names like Coburg and Reservoir on the TV (usually in connection with a tragedy of some kind). But middle class Melburnians like myself never learned what life was really like in those dun and softly drumming suburbs to the north.

Dickins fills the gaps for me beautifully. Impressionistic, the antithesis of clever, and deeply felt, this is a comprehensive rundown on their beauty and their terror, past and present. We have the schoolboy Dickins's seven long years on his mother's date sandwiches; Dickins the school-leaver removing nipples from nudes in the Truth art department; Dickins the Fitzroy hippie, sharing a joint with the Victoria Police; and the latterday Dickins: actor, columnist, screenwriter and talk show guest - established, at last, as the oldest enfant terrible in the West.

The Carlton-Fitzroy hippie era stuff will ring bells for many readers now in mid-life. It brings back not only the magic of that period - and there was plenty - but also, thankfully, the squalor, the poverty and the dubious chemical discoveries. Anyone still foolish enough to romanticise the copious drug-taking of the time will meet many of those who spent months in bed staring at ceiling roses, whose brains were slowly turned to cinders, or who died, because of it. If you can handle Dickins's partiality to the relatively harmless cannabis, it wouldn't be a bad drug education for your children.

Dickins's own favourite chemical discovery is that of alcohol, and here we lose our common ground for a while. I've known hundreds of writers - many of them drunks - and not one whose work has been improved by the stuff: the symbiotic relationship between drink and writing is a myth. What is true is that writers are generally lonelier, more depressive souls than the average, and thus turn to drink more readily. But this is as far as the relationship goes.

Dickins's prose - which is obviously conditioned by his affinity with the grog - would almost certainly be more coherent without it. (Indeed at first I thought the book's editing had been done by the same semi-literate trainee typist who enthused over "Dickin's life" and "Dickin's reputation" in the Penguin press release.) But it soon became obvious - as the following passage on the Pram Factory Theatre illustrates - that the publisher has deliberately retained the book's rambling, disjointed quality:

Into this house of drugs and filth, criminals and fading poets, prostitutes and loafers, postmen and cat burglars, tall actors from Tasmania who stole televisions for a living and read Proust in bed on pethedine, this strange hangover called acting I fell in love with, of course, and was always different after making their macabre acquaintance.

Do we really want him to sober up and write more coherently? The purist in me - or is it the puritan? - says yes.

The rest of me, however, is grateful for the unwashed, boyish and flagrantly confused character Dickins presents in this book. The rest of you will be too. He is one even the staunchest pedant will, ultimately, wish to embrace - though many will want to hose him down first.

It is a depressing comment on the much-vaunted revival in Australian comedy that for every person who chortles softly over this fine, insightful little book - this rubber dagger aimed at the heart of suburbia - a thousand will bray like donkeys at the predictabilities of the Doug Anthony Allstars, and ten thousand yawp and grin through the Steve Vizard Show.

Take a stand for quality this Christmas, and invest in the cut-price splendour of Barry Dickins. Do it for the kids.

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