Thursday, January 31, 2008

A bunch of ratbags

I said quite a while ago I'd been reading old books. Not so much reading them as wallowing in them. Some are old but new to me, some old even to me, but nonetheless I've been enjoying them. Part of the charm is in their very age. Many writers essay the historical but there is something about the, to me, historical, written by someone to whom it was not history. Hence the charm of, for examples, Dickens[^] or Gissing[^]. The last author in particular impresses me with the way he describes the London of the 1880's (like I'd know if it was accurate or not!). You can find a selection of his work at Project Gutenberg (or just click on the link over there --> under Literature).

But the book that sparked this particular wander down memory lane is 'A bunch of Ratbags' written by one William Dick. I've not managed to find a single link through Google that says anything about Mr Dick. I was impressed, however, by the filtering that Google apply; I half expected a plethora of links of a non-worksafe nature but was pleasantly surprised.

This is one of those books that's old to me; I first read it in 1968 when a teacher at Footscray Tech intimated that it might interest me. He was right. The charm was (and is) that it was written by a Footscray boy and the places he writes about are in and around Footscray. To be sure he disguised the name, calling it Goodway. I'm not sure why he changed it; perhaps he was writing a little too close to the time (it details his life from the late 1940's until the early 1960's and it was published in 1965).

But I know, from the descriptions, most of the places he wrote about; the house he lived in was at Errol Street, since demolished as part of the rebuilding of Mt Mistake[^] (the space is now occupied by an onramp to the Princess Highway). The Star theatre in his book is what was once the Trocadero on Barkly Street; the Gold was the Grand in Paisley Street. Interestingly enough he doesn't mention the La Scala in Leeds street but perhaps it wasn't there in the mid 1950's. It was certainly there in 1962 though not of much interest to us at the time; they ran Italian movies.

My friends and I used to go to the Saturday Arvo matinee at the Grand in 1963/64 - we preferred the movie at the Grand but the Troc had Tom and Jerry Cartoons in the first half so we'd buy our tickets at the Troc, sit through the first half and sneak in the backdoor to the Grand for the main feature. We thought ourselves clever young bastards but in later years I've suspected a shared management!

I think I've established that I know the milieu though I do confess I resorted to the Melways[^] online to be certain. (They obviously don't want people doing detail links).

I went to the same school and I have to say that, going by the description of life at Footscray Tech in the early 1950's I'm glad I wasn't there then! I probably wouldn't have survived the experience. It had a reputation as a 'tough' school in the 60's but I certainly didn't experience the gang life he describes.

He describes how he aspired to, and eventually made it, to the status of Bodgie[^]. I can just remember Bodgies at the end of the 1950's; sitting on a tram with my Grandmother and Mum and seeing these old people (remember I was five or six) dressed so differently, and with such strange haircuts. (How interesting that one of the things we judge people by is their hair). The other thing I remember is that they left us alone though I seem to remember my Grandmother being apprehensive.

But the thing that got us interested in reading this book in 1968 was the forbidden subject of sex! In a time when PersianKitty is a click of a URL away that seems quaint but it was certainly so in Australia, the 'summer of love' notwithstanding. We were so censored that when that silly song 'Snoopy and the Red Baron' was on the top 40 they'd bleep the word 'bloody' because it was a swear word in Australia! Indeed, as recently as 1972 the vice squad raided a prominent Melbourne Department Store (Myers) because they'd displayed a copy of Michaelangelo's David in the window!

And then this book was placed in our hands. It's pretty tame stuff these days but back then any literature that even hinted at the mystery of girls was avidly consumed. As an accomplished reader I was called upon to read the 'dirty' passages out loud. I vividly recall walking down Nicholson Street, away from the school and toward Footscray shopping centre, the book in my hands, reading it out loud to a half dozen or so schoolmates. Even more vivid, the feeling of embarassment when we encountered a group of young ladies from the Footscray Girls School and my friends insisted I keep reading, out loud!

Well, sequestered in a boys only school, what did I know of girls? How was I to know that they were every bit as interested in the opposite sex as we were? I had much to learn!

It was quite fun learning.

13 comments:

Brian Stevenson said...

This was one of my favourite books as a kid, and was reissued as a Penguin in the late 1980s, if my recollection is correct. Dick put out a sequel, Naked Prodigal, which had more or less the same story, and had some strong similarities to The Feather Pluckers by Peter Jones, set in England. I am surprised that we never heard more of William Dick. I reread my brother's copy in the US a couple of years ago, and it took me right back.

Bassta! Pex, a.k.a. Gramofonije Plocanovic said...

it's an awesome book and I'm shock that it has not been re-printed for a long time...

Anonymous said...

Things that happen eh? Bougth a box of books at auction the other week and another (unwanted ) box came with it. Thought I'd give it away to local National Trust in here in the UK but would google the first book that came out when I diped my hand in. You've guessed right " A bunch of ratbags" it was. Am going to have to read it now...

alfred said...

A brilliant book. Tame by todays standard but well worth the read!

Anonymous said...

I WAS IN TURANA BOYS HOME IN PARKVILLE IN 1968 .THIS WHEN I FIRST READ THISEXCITING BOOK. UP TO NOW IT HAS NEVER BEEN OUT OF MY MIND .IVE BEEN TRYING TO GET A COPY OF IT FOR A LONG TIME NOW

Alex said...

I just came across your post and I felt that I should let you know that I have the pleasure of knowing Bill Dick. He is an absolute champion!

A Bunch of Ratbags is a wonderful book and Bill has some very interesting stories about it. It got made into a musical as well (of which Bill is very proud of).

Gee Bee said...

Having known Billy Dick (and even having had a slight mention in the book) I too would like to get hold of a fresh copy having had mine disappear some years ago. It was indeed a wonderful book from a very tallented Footscray boy.

OzyNick said...

I too have this book. I read it first in the early seventies while at school, (Sydney).

I re-read it every few years and still love it. I'd love to be able to get in touch with the author!

I wonder if he has thought of making it an EBook? If he was willing, I'd do the work for free!

steven wilson said...

Does anyone know if William Dick is still alive, just got hisbook for reread and attended a talk on him at the Footscray Historical Society and they didn't know

carl said...

I found the book deeply moving, and in a minor way an Australian classic. It is a story which deals with the struggle with adversity, of realising the limitations and cruelty of a particular lifestyle, and devising methods of escaping from and rising above what promised to be a dead-end. I have had a copy of this book for about 30 years, and my elder daughter used it as a case study for Year 12 (contrasting it with "Billy Liar" and "Catcher in the Rye" - and despite the opposition of her feminist teacher who read it through a reductive and shallow ideological lens, not reading it in terms of what it has to offer). I am surprised that this book is out of print - it is part of our social history, and it remains a bloody good read.

Shane Crandell said...

My father went to school with the author, he gave me the book to read when I was in my 20s,,he said one of the characters was based on him although he wouldn't say which one,, bit embarrassed I expect,, great read,,

Shane Crandell said...

Did you know my father John?

Shane Crandell said...

My father went to school with the author, he gave me the book to read when I was in my 20s,,he said one of the characters was based on him although he wouldn't say which one,, bit embarrassed I expect,, great read,,