Barry Dickins used to write satirical restaurant reviews about real restaurants. He took his material from life and then embellished it, but in character. The embellishing brought the lawsuits. He liked to destroy the egos, the pretensions, the fake grandiosity - like theatre without drama - of an industry whose bible was a guide for travelling salesmen published by a tyre company.
One of Dickins' best, and possibly most notorious, reviews was about a long-gone restaurant in South Yarra (Glo Glo's? Two Faces?) in which he savagely satirised the French-accented waiter whose real name he alleged was Wayne. They sued. Dickins lost. It wasn't Wayne. It was Craig. Or something like that.
Dickins wrote books, plays, poetry. He wrote for The Age, the Herald Sun, the Melbourne Times and anyone else brave enough to publish him. He supplied illustrations for the articles he wrote. Some were unpublishable, others got through. Dickins was fringe because he didn't fit anyone's pet-writer style, least of all the critics. Later, he fell into depression, ended up in hospital, was drugged and subjected to shock therapy.
The therapy didn’t work, so he wrote a book about the experience called Unparalleled Sorrow. At his relaunch of the book last week at Coburg library, Dickins revealed the title came from his mother who, when taken from her comfortable Carlton home by her new husband in the early 1950s to see the block of land in Reservoir on which they would build their home, was later asked for her first reaction. Reservoir still provides material for Dickins' work. Instead of waxing lyrical about the suburb in the usual reflexive working-class writer manner prescribed by the literary set, Dickins continues to lambast it as an arid wasteland of toughs, crime and broken front fences. He does however, have a word of praise for the row of pine trees that line High Street at its apex, where the suburb begins its march northward on a flat dry plain stretching to Thomastown.
Don’t read Unparalleled Sorrow expecting to learn anything about mental illness, or it will do your head in. The book is hilarious. Dickins is confronting and outrageous. His technique can be unfuriating to the unfamiliar reader but his text is lit with many passages of brilliance, like shafts of sunlight through an old tin roof illuminating patches of floor. The book is also littered with Dickins' spidery illustrations.
It was a cold night. The relaunch was one of those low-key public library events that always seem to attract the same crowd: more material for Dickins. There might have been thirty seats, three rows of five to either side of the centre aisle. Two-thirds were filled by the start at 8 p.m. The rest were taken as people came in late, without shame. The event was free, so people think it's fine to come as you are and when you like. One man, ten minutes into Dickin's talk, entered and bumped himself down noisily in an empty chair in the front row. Another floated in like a ghost in a stage play, removed his jacket and scarf theatrically and with the utmost care while still upstanding, folded them just as carefully, removed a bottle of water from his bag, unscrewed it, poured some down his throat, and sat down. Dickins started his sentence again.
Eventually Barry Dickins asked the moderator to shut the damn door, but politely.
Later, he took questions from the audience. Who'd be a writer?
Hardie Grant 2008
Available at Readings, Lygon Street