So, let me start by telling you a story. Back in 2014 I was touting around my first book, Borrowed Time, to a few eBook publishing organisations. A couple of days after sending it, I received a call from a guy, who said he liked it and it reminded him of his favourite author. A guy by the name of Robert G. Barrett.Him: “Have you heard of him?”
Me: “Yeah, but I’ve not read a word.”
There it was. Some young clown trying to get his work out there, but hadn’t read one of Australia’s finest artistic treasures. Idiot! In any case, me being the curious sponge, I ended the call and started scouring the Internet for Robert G. Barrett's books and from there, I guess you could say the rest is history. After the necessary procurements, three pages into Bob's first novel, You Wouldn’t Be Dead For Quids and the cynic in me says: “fuck, I’ve spent the last five years copying this bloke!”
On the flipside, perhaps it was an aligning of stars? I do adopt that spiritual belief that things happen for a reason. You know, the book you pick up off the shelf, or the album you select off your iPod. The fact that Barrett passed away after a lengthy battle against bowel cancer further illustrated an aligning of the stars somewhat, as my Dad also battled against the same illness. Thankfully, he survived.
So was this the spirits coercing me towards RGB all along, or does my cynicism prevail? Yes, it does, I’m just another copyist. Although in this case, it’s largely irrelevant.
After reading the first five Robert G. Barrett novels, I have a question for you and it relates Barrett’s main protagonist, Les Norton. Is the big Queenslander from Dirranbandi the last Australian working class hero? I can almost hear the slight snigger, or high-pitched sigh. But seriously. Think about it…
Yes, we have athletes, actors, musicians and various other ambassadors around the world plying their trade in the world of stardom, but as far as ordinary working class heroes are concerned I put this to you. Fictitious or not, is Les Norton the last working class hero to ever grace Australian shores?
Here is an excerpt from The Godson.
"I wonder who that red-headed bloke is? He's come into town out of nowhere, flattened six of the best fighters in Yurriki plus the biggest man in the valley. Then he arrives at my dance in an army uniform drinking French champagne and imported beer like it's going out of style. And ups and leaves with the best young sort in the joint... Don't know who he is. But he's not bloody bad."
From all the Robert G. Barrett I have had the pleasure of reading thus far, this is the perfect summation of Les Norton. The man with fists like Darling Downs hams is somewhat made of Teflon throughout, but you can do nothing but shake your head at the man. Why? We’ve all known a Les Norton in our lives. That person who could seemingly write a book about themselves without even a hint of narcissism. And I’m not suggesting for one minute that Barrett based himself on Norton (despite many suggesting this to be the case, I think it’s bullshit).
Upon reading about Bob’s life, the one particular point of interest which I find amusing and embarrassing at the same time is the fact that many claimed Barrett to be a racist and a homophobe. On what grounds exactly ? Because Barrett’s characters teeter on the fringes of marginalisation? Here’s a little piece of advice. This doesn’t actually make the author himself that way inclined. It’s what Barrett experienced throughout his life, subsequently choosing to write about it through the voice of his characters. Lesson one in writing; write what you know. It’s called gritty realism and in Bob’s case, it was used fictitiously to constructive effect. Anyone suggesting otherwise is subscribing to a world which continues to revel within the realms of a destructive democracy. A world where common sense is long forgotten. A world where taking the piss out of all and sundry is seen as marginalisation, thus rendering satire as something akin to a rotting corpse.
After all, the man dedicated royalties to organisations such as Greenpeace and the R.S.P.C.A., as well as others. Not exactly behaviour one would associate with a creative persecutor. So why all the cat calls from his contemporaries, you ask? These perpetual slurs directed Barrett’s way were from the upper-echelons of the literary establishment and, in my opinion, were done out of pure spite and jealously. A classic example of Australia’s tall poppy syndrome, which doesn’t discriminate against various social demographics. Surely someone without an arts degree couldn’t possibly flourish in the literary world? And shock horror that the author in question could create a readership that boasts similar credentials? You want to talk about art. That’s fucking art! His ability to pick apart his detractors with his piss-taking antics held no bounds. It epitomised the larrikinism of Australian culture.
And for the record, Barrett’s books were the most read within the Australia prison system once upon a time. I’m sure there’s many a copy of Davo’s Little Something and/or Mudcrab Boogie floating around the prison walls of Long Bay, Wacol et al.
Barrett was to Australian literature what the Beasts of Bourbon were to music in this country. Rough as guts, “raw as a greyhound’s dinner” and completely uncompromising. Quite simply, he didn’t give a fuck. It was real. It was art! He was undoubtedly one of the great artisans this country has ever produced. If only there were more Robert G. Barrett’s around, then Australia wouldn’t be enveloped in a midlife crisis. Someone not afraid to speak their mind and weed out the fools, as opposed to a political class and their empty-suit-bearing creators of policy, suppressing democracy and free speech more and more as each day passes.
Les Norton, the last of Australia’s working class heroes? Ironically, the very thought would probably have Bob turning in his grave.
By Simon K.
P.S. Please visit this page which contains Bob's personal farewell.