Shelton Lea and Jack Dancer
There was a crash pad for Royal George Young Push in Crown Street, Darlinghurst, in 1964. I used to go there a bit as a seventeen year old aspiring beatnik; it was a convenient place to take girls to (suitable venues being hard to find).
Another place I stayed, just down the road, was rented by Anna, who was reputed to have entertained John Lennon and Bob Dylan in 1964: but I never saw them there. I saw a lot of Anna though - she handpicked me from the throng at The Royal George, grabbed me by my turtle-necked sweater and frogmarched me to her flat, where she gave me a close inspection lasting several months. She had long, straight dark hair and looked like Joan Baez. She was very strong, once challenging me to a wrestling match and beating me - though I was big and strong enough - without too much effort.
Anyway, Back to the Crown Street crash pad. Larry "Jesus" lived there, and English Paul, and Adelaide Jeff, and Shelton Lea, and many others. One of my defining memories of this period goes as follows: in the winter of '64, Crown Street (as the pad, a Victorian terrace house, is called) is full of long-hairs, bohemians, Push, artists, poets, beatniks and assorted entourage. It is bitterly cold, so the resourceful inhabitants are demolishing the wooden staircase, handrail and post, step by step, to feed into the fireplace. Eventually there is no staircase left, and the only way to go up or down is by gymnastic feat. The furniture, such as it is, is also disappearing into the fireplace to warm the shivering, ill-fed denizens, many of whom are in various stages of high or low pertaining to alcohol, yippee beans, bi-polar disorder and the rest of it. But one manic figure is unstoppably energetic: Shelton Lea, who leaps from one end of the dive to the other reciting his own poetry in a florid, rhetorical manner. Shelton is already a published poet - much to my envy - and will go on to build a considerable Underground Poetry Career in Sydney and especially Melbourne. At Crown Street and The George he is an italianate-looking curly-haired poetry machine, bright-eyed, unstoppably eloquent.
Now he is dead, as are many from the Days of The Royal George and after. English Paul, Vyda, Trevor, Warren, Jacques, Chuck Cookson, Marcia, Malto, Adrian Rawlins, Brian Raven, Vivienne.
I found this letter in a thread here. I have not yet verified the Ron Silliman allusion:
At 3:59 PM -0700 6/23/05, Ron Silliman wrote: Bard of the back streets Jen Jewel Brown 24jun05
Shelton Lea Poet, publisher and fine-book dealer. Born Melbourne, August 25, 1946. Died Melbourne, May 13, aged 58.
RAPSCALLION, big-hearted mentor and arguably Australia's finest romantic poet, Shelton Lea died peacefully at home in Clifton Hill, Melbourne, on Friday, May 13. He was renowned as the beautiful, charming, dope-smoking wag who was a close mate of Heide's Barrett Reid (poet and librarian) and Sweeney Reed (artist and gallery owner). He lived at Heide for years after John and Sunday Reed died, helping Reid put out Overland magazine.
Last year Lea spoke eloquently on ABC television's Stateline about his experiences as a 16-year-old in Pentridge, helping in the campaign to keep children out of adult jails. Later that year, the Victorian Children and Young Persons (Age Jurisdiction) Act 2004 was passed, effectively extending the definition of child from 17 to 18 in several areas of the law.
Lea lived life on a grand scale. Mystery surrounds the identity of his father, thought to have suffered a breakdown after serving in World War II. His mother came to Melbourne from Perth in 1946 to give birth to Shelton at the Haven, a home for unmarried mothers. The lively boy spent the first 15 months of his life there. One carer remembered him decades later as a delightful child, if a head-banger.
He was adopted into the Lea family of Toorak, famous for its confectionery. At 12 he became "too close" to a chocolate factory worker, who was accordingly fired. Distraught, Shelton told his adoptive father "I fire you" and ran away from home, ending up in various homes for wayward youngsters. He met Aborigines for the first time and was made an honorary black. At 16, he ended up in Pentridge's notorious C Division, where he witnessed rape and murder.
Time in Long Bay, Goulburn and Grafton jails followed. Lea became a skilled pickpocket and cat burglar. He penned love poems and letters for grateful inmates. For a time in the early 1960s he lived with gypsies on the roads of rural Australia. After being thrown out of Kings Cross for manufacturing LSD, he moved back to Melbourne where he met the Heide set through sculptor Joel Elenberg.
In his 58 years Lea had children with three women. Nine books of his poetry have been published. He is known for his articulate, street-smart humour, his gentle love poetry and the mythic, visceral masculinity of his visions. In a country where artists are generally asked what their real job is, he took his poetic calling seriously. A popular reader, he approached performance with an almost Shakespearean bravura. He also published several other poets' books through his imprint Eaglemont Press and ran fine bookshops including, recently, De Havillands in Clifton Hill.
His February diagnosis of Jack Dancer (as he liked to call his lung cancer) left him three months to live. He made the most of it, pushing through the release of his ninth book Nebuchadnezzar (through Black Pepper), while poems from it were accepted by The Age and The Australian.
Nebuchadnezzar was launched by Dorothy Porter at the Rochester Castle Hotel in Fitzroy, eight days before the poet's death. The pub overflowed. Although he had thought he wouldn't have the breath, Lea decided on the night to make a final, moving reading of the title poem. In the voice (with permission) of Aboriginal identity Sonny Booth and dedicated to Booth and Lionel Rose, the work is inspired by the Arthur Boyd painting, Nebuchadnezzar Burning.
Shelton Lea is survived by his partner Leith Woodgate, his children Kaye, Destiny, Danay and Zero, godson Ben, half and adopted siblings, and grandchildren, nieces and nephews.