SHELTON, PRINCE OF FITZROY
(a review of Delinquent Angel, the biography of Shelton Lea by Diana Georgeff, published Random House, Australia, 2007.)
romantic |rōˈmantik; rə-|
1 inclined toward or suggestive of the feeling of excitement and mystery associated with love : a romantic candlelit dinner.
• relating to love, esp. in a sentimental or idealized way : a romantic comedy.
See note at sentimental .
2 . of, characterized by, or suggestive of an idealized view of reality : a romantic attitude toward the past | some romantic dream of country peace.
3 (usu. Romantic) of, relating to, or denoting the artistic and literary movement of Romanticism : the Romantic tradition.
a person with romantic beliefs or attitudes : I am an incurable romantic.
• (usu. Romantic) a writer or artist of the Romantic movement.
romantically |-ik(ə)lē| |roʊˈmøn(t)ək(ə)li| adverb
ORIGIN mid 17th cent. (referring to the characteristics of romance in a narrative): from archaic romaunt [tale of chivalry,] from an Old French variant of romanz (see romance ).
When I heard there was a biography of Shelton coming out, it was a bag of mixed emotions. Good that the enfant terrible was to be noted, celebrated probably, by the machine which loves to punish poets in the worst way – that is, to ignore and to not publish. And emotions from a darker zone because I had not been consulted for biographical data. I coulda been a contender, I could have been somebody in that biography.
Okay…To be sure to be sure, I was but a minor player in just the B Role of Shelley’s (I was gonna say ‘braggadocio’ life. But I don’t mean that in a rude way, I think I mean ‘shining’, or ‘romantic’) life. But like all of us who knew him, I felt that I knew him.
There had been one line which only Shelton, a policewoman, a quite comatose drunk and I were witness to. Reading the book, as I have now done, I can see that the comment by Shelton to the ‘jack’ really was made for this book. It was perfect as a window into his way, into the journey and moral righteousness that was this knockabout poet. Shelley was a lover. A lover of life. Abide with me while I regail:
Spinning out of the Albion Hotel *one night, Shelton and I were headed Christ Knows Where(* the Albion was on the corner of Lygon and Faraday in Carlton, now replaced by a frock shop and in the early seventies, chockerblock with artists/panhandlers/pricks/
Shelton is outraged at the spectacle and confronts the uniformed woman with a snarled (and I quote verbatim because of the strong impression of the moment…) "Any man who turns the key on another man is a dog!”
I got him out of there, as I didn’t want to see us in the divvy van too, and the copper was glad to see the back of us.
The title of the book about Shelton – Delinquent Angel – is a just title. It is perfect for the boy. And I do like the book. With reservations. It has been researched up the keister, apart from missing out on a few essential spectators to the Romantic life that Shelton lead.
A friend of ours, Billy Baker (not a poet, not a published poet, but a face from the Albion and the times) ran with Shelton in the teenage years. Billy knew a lot, a real lot about Shelton in those years. The author did speak to Billy on the phone but I suspect she missed a lot of pure gold to be had by an afternoon with Bill talking of Shelley.
That said, the book has many (though not a daunting amount of) pages and reads well and full. Like all great persons, Shelton lead a life that could serve to fill the pages of more than one biography, and each would be worthy…well here I’m in truly hypothetical space, so I’ll say potentially worthy.
I first met Shelton when I wrote for a counter-culture newspaper named The Digger. IT was a great paper, a broadsheet and acknowledged worldwide in the alternative scene as being a class act. Names like (well, actually and in fact) Helen Garner, Virginia Frazer, Phillip Fraser (I think the ‘s’ and ‘z’ are where they ought be), Garrie Hutchinson, Bill Garner, Jenny Brown (now Jenjewel), Ponch Hawkes etc etc worked for the rag.
I had reviewed a book by Shelton and I think the collection included a poem with a line about hammering a dog to death, and I reacted to it. Also Shelton sometimes was a trifle majestic with his language and I being not a great fan of the prosaic. … though some might contend otherwise… anyway, the review I gave was ‘mixed’.
And by chance a few days after publication of the review, at The Albion, someone said that Shelton Lea, I didn’t yet know him, was there. I went up and introduced myself. I said I had written the review. Shelton said he'd read it. Now Shelton wasn’t built like a brick shithouse and his fighting skills were never formalised, as far as I know, and he had no karate belts or martial arts gradings. I was taller and weighed in a division or two heavier. But he could summon the hard eye of a bloke who’ll happily go in. Especially when the honour of someone has been tarnished. In this case, his.
But he said, not in these exact words but near enough…that he respected honesty, as in my equivocating review, and he appreciated that I had faced up to him. Shelley had dash, and he admired it in others, even if, as in my case, the dash was fleeting and minor.
I immediately liked him, and not just because he had no plans to deck me.
Shelton was the true spirit of poetry. The wanderer, you might catch him at a hippy poetry reading here, a library ladies luncheon reading there, or jumping up on the bar of a rough pub somewhere inland to read his work, and almost beggin’ for a punch in the gob.
Over the years I can’t remember a time when to run into Shelton was not an uplifting moment…well, maybe the odd time when he was too pissed to perambulate, or too stoned to dig into his pocket and share what was making him fly.
Hard Time One: He was really angry when the publishing company I was a founding member of –Outback Press – stuffed up the publishing of his poetry collection, The Palatine Madonna, misspelling the cover to make ‘Palantine’.
Of course there is always the obligation of the writer to proofread (you the writer of the book are the one who cares most and knows most, and the chance will never comer again) but…the publisher must wear it. I said to Shelley that I too thought it was shabby and then made it clear that I had been cleaned out of Outback Press (with Mark Gillespie) and that Fred Milgrom and Morrie Schwartz, who had tipped out Mark and me, were the responsible ones. But I won’t venture further down this memory lane, that dark time is not for this review.
Hard Time Two: And the only other time was when somehow he ended up with what I thought was a rare copy of a theosophy book by Madam Blavatsky that had started out that day being owned by me…he didn’t nick it, I gave it to him, but I suspect there was so me sort of hypnosis thing happening. And really, madam Blavatsky wasn’t all that important. Actually I’m just saying that, I wouldn’t know either way.
Speaking of Times: The last time I saw Shelton was at Shelton and (his partner in life) Lee’s place for dinner, a few months before he left this world for parts unknown, or left in parts and unknown, when he invited me and my friend Liz, and a handful of poets, to celebrate the launch of Raffaella Torresan’s book of photography of poets reading live around Melbourne.
Shelton had acted as publisher, and I had written the cover notes. There was, at the dinner party, unfortunately, a moment were voices were raised over an issue (an issue I took seriously), things got a bit testy and Shelton watched from the sidelines. He didn’t jump in and up hold the honor of the situation, as I just assumed (but was not encouraging or wanting or hoping for) would happen. And I guess that’s when I felt something was up with his state…more than just the crook ankle that the walking cane and the slow release morphine started. For normally Shelley would have been front and square.
I don’t mean for this to sound like I think I was a close friend or that I knew Shelley well. Many others knew him better for longer and in a more real way. But I was a close friend and knew him well. (That’s the sort of statement Socrates could make I reckon.)
When he had his bookshop up in North Fitzroy called Dehavillands (the significance is mentioned in the biography I think), I had a book I’d written called The Zen Detective (it was totally unpublicised by the publisher so you’d never know it had been released) and I placed a few in his shop. Sometimes I got cash from a sale (but I kept sales records, I hasten to mention), sometimes, if he was short, I’d swap my sale for a book or two in his shop, and more often than I wished, the invoice had sort of slipped behind a cabinet and we didn’t know what had sold or what he held…After a while, I realised that it didn’t really matter. It was simply a reason to visit, a transaction to have while Shell sat in the back room smoking tobacco lacerated dope, drinking mild grog and swallowing slow-acting morphine (for a broken foot).
It wasn’t as if I thought his poetry was the greatest – but apart from John Forbes and Kris Hemensley and a couple of others, Judith Wright, Slessor, CJ Dennis, I dunno… okay there are heaps of good ones, I dunno…I am not a massive unquestioning fan of modern poetry anymore– but his presence as a poet was perfect. He was poetry. Now that sounds a wee naff, but I dunno how else to say it. Errol Flynn, Lord Byron, Rimbaud, oh yeah,
But back to the book. And I liked the book,to read it is to get a feeling for the regard in which Shelton was held. Is to understand a little of why the title Delinquent Angel is just right. How the wee Shelton was abused, and it is awful to read of this abuse. That poetry saved his life from much much more crime and sorrow is just true.
That poetry gave a grand focus for the rough diamond light blazing from his soul is beyond dispute.
Now there is an episode in the book where Shelton is at a poets' pub in Sydney, I think it was the Rose, Shamrock and Thistle, called the three weeds by locals and poets – I see Wales didn’t get a look-in, I dunno what their national flower is– at a poetry night and Shelton emptied his bladder on a row of Hell’s Angels' Harleys (I think they were Harleys).
I read in the book that Robert Adamson thought it had to be an accident and someone else thought it was deliberate. The outcome was Shelley was bashed a bit by the bikies when they came out.
Well, friends, it was deliberate because I was there, beggin him (well, begging is a bit strong, let’s say trying to appeal to a drunk Shelton’s reason, when he was already upset at the way the bikies were acting inside the pub – and I have no idea what the problem was, but Shelley felt his honor was besmirched, whatever) not to do what I feared he was about to do.
We’d left the hotel together to do what I can’t recall, he saw the row of bikes, I saw the light in his eyes raise in radiance, and he changed the direction of his minor alcoholic stagger. Then he fumbled with the zip of his fly and I yelled out ‘Shelton, don’t, please' (a few tries) and then ‘Shelley, I’m not going to back you up on this one, Shelley you’re on your own..dont please’ etc etc.
Yeah, I admit it, I never had much dash, and Shelton had it by the wheatbag full—although Shelley’s was coupled with a chaotic edge, often.
So he pissed on the bikes, the bikies came out, true to my word I sat back and watched as half a dozen leather clad blokes knocked Shelley about a bit. I mean, he had just done a pee on their prides n joy. He fought back as best he could.
When they stopped, I probably helped him up, I dunno. He had a split lip. Blood. He was happy. Another stoush when he was five out. So if there’s a second edition of Delinquent Angel, I offer this version as the whole truth of a moment in Shelton’s remarkable life.
Take two: Now after writing the above, as luck would have it, the next day I was at lunch in Windsor with Jen Jewel Brown, who is a poet and was Jenny Brown when she wrote for The Digger so many years ago, and she is also literary executrix for Shelley’s Estate. Jen says that there is not a lot of happiness about the biography. For instance she says there is dispute over the use of Shelley’s poetry in the book (a lot is used) and that there are rights’ issues. Among other issues. I will not here break the privilege Jen’s conversation details with me. But it was necessary to mention the above, I felt. If you want to read one view of his life, the biography exists. Yet there was much more to Shelley’s life, and many more views and angles are yet to be shown the light.
If you want to read his work, go to Shelley’s books of poetry.
And that is where I leave it.
colin talbot st kilda july 2009
Colin Talbot is a self-described "minor Victorian novelist". An ex rock columnist for The Australian and existential columnist for Richard Neville's Living Daylights newspaper, he was a founding director of Outback Press in the '70s. Wrote & directed the feature film Sweethearts from his own novel. Last published novel was The Zen Detective. Web, www.travenworld.com/