Dam­aged bard of bo­hemia

Af­ter an abu­sive child­hood, then jail, poet Shel­ton Lea found the gift that saved him, writes John Tran­ter Delin­quent An­gel

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - By Diana Ge­orgeff Ran­dom House, 369pp, $ 34.95

IT must have looked so good on pa­per. In 1946, at the end of the war, the Sal­va­tion Army ba­bies’ home in Melbourne had dozens of aban­doned chil­dren ready for adop­tion. When wealthy Va­lerie Lea came look­ing for a play com­pan­ion for her four chil­dren, they had just the right baby for her — cheer­ful, bright and friendly — and she had just the right home for him: a stable mar­riage, a large house, plenty of ser­vants and a thriv­ing busi­ness mak­ing con­fec­tionery.

The Vic­to­rian branch of the Dar­rell Lea fam­ily, Monty and Va­lerie Lea, worked hard, dressed well, read the Bi­ble and sent their chil­dren to good schools. But were they the ideal par­ents the Child Wel­fare De­part­ment hoped they would be?

Va­lerie had planned to have 15 chil­dren, but a bad back stopped her af­ter four. She adopted three more as play­mates for them; the baby she named Shel­ton Lea was the sec­ond. As she later ra­tio­nalised it, ‘‘ Two dogs played bet­ter than one.’’ It was made clear to the adopted chil­dren that they would never in­herit any of the fam­ily wealth; only the nat­u­ral chil­dren would get that. A wo­man who knew them well said of them: ‘‘ That is their only con­ver­sa­tion, busi­ness and money. If you were not will­ing to be part of the busi­ness, you were no use to the fam­ily.’’

The re­volv­ing staff of ser­vants were mostly Balts who spoke lit­tle English. Monty and Va­lerie were ab­sorbed in busi­ness and Va­lerie only saw the chil­dren for an hour af­ter work. Din­ner was ex­actly 30 min­utes long, and was ac­com­pa­nied by a read­ing from the Bi­ble and some­times an in­struc­tive story from the daily pa­per about a naughty child who had dis­obeyed his par­ents and had been run over or mu­ti­lated in an ac­ci­dent. In the evenings Va­lerie com­mu­ni­cated with the chil­dren by in­ter­com, read­ing them bed­time sto­ries and lis­ten­ing to their breath­ing when they were in bed. It doesn’t sound good, does it?

Shel­ton had been a happy baby, but un­der this rigid rou­tine, and de­prived of af­fec­tion, he soon be­came dis­tressed. For years he spent the night cry­ing, rock­ing and beat­ing his head against the wall. The noise ir­ri­tated his mother and he was dosed with the tran­quil­liser phe­no­bar­bi­tal to keep him quiet. Va­lerie fo­cused an ob­ses­sive dis­like on him and he was al­ways sus­pected when any­thing was bro­ken, went miss­ing or was stolen. Af­ter all, he was il­le­git­i­mate. Shel­ton later said, ‘‘ I only ever re­mem­ber hos­til­ity from my mother.’’

He was reg­u­larly beaten with a strap — Va­lerie talked of fre­quent ‘‘ whack­ings’’ and ‘‘ wal­lop­ings’’ — and he ran away from home many times as a boy, steal­ing food to stay alive and sleep­ing rough. In his early teens he was sent to a boys home, but ran away; other boys homes fol­lowed, with episodes of tru­ancy and theft, and fi­nally he grad­u­ated to the tread­mill of steal­ing, ar­rest, prison and re­lease; then more steal­ing, ar­rest and prison again.

If his child­hood was pitiable, as an adult his ex­pe­ri­ences of prison were worse: he was bashed by po­lice and warders, half- frozen in win­ter and gen­er­ally de­graded.

To me, this wil­ful re­cidi­vism is hard to un­der­stand. If prison was so har­row­ing, why would any­one fling them­selves in front of that jug­ger­naut year af­ter year? As his dis­ap­pointed par­ents must have asked, did he have to steal? Why didn’t he just get a job, like other peo­ple?

Some­how his spirit sur­vived. His bi­og­ra­pher, who came to know him well over many years, re­marks on his cheer­ful­ness; he was ac­tu­ally joy­ful, she writes.

He was also bright and tal­ented, and in ado­les­cence dis­cov­ered a gift for po­etry. It be­came an es­cape, a use­ful trade ( in prison he wrote let­ters and love po­ems for the other in­mates for cig­a­rettes) and a ca­reer that would give his life depth and pur­pose.

Was he a good poet? I saw him work his magic

on ap­pre­cia­tive crowds, but to me his words don’t read so well on the page, de­prived of his ex­u­ber­ant de­liv­ery and the warm buzz from an au­di­ence. He wasn’t my kind of poet, but there are many dif­fer­ent kinds of po­etry, from the Anzac dawn ser­vice to rock ’ n’ roll lyrics, from the sub­tle cos­mopoli­tan pas­torals of the Alexan­drian Greeks to the bru­tal sagas of the Norse­men. They all have a value, and Lea’s dithyra­m­bic per­for­mances found many fans.

His gift, com­bined with his good looks and ready charm, brought him at­ten­tion and a de­gree of fame. Po­etry and bo­hemia be­came a way of life and he per­se­vered at it in a way that he failed to do with his fre­quent af­fairs or sev­eral part­ners, or with his four chil­dren, thought­lessly sad­dled with the names Zero, Chaos, Des­tiny and Danay.

Asked about his chil­dren, he said: ‘‘ I left it to their moth­ers. Isn’t that what a mother is sup­posed to do? Bring up the chil­dren?’’ When the af­fair was over he left their sin­gle moth­ers to raise them, earn a liv­ing and pay the rent with­out his help. Aban­doned him­self, he aban­doned his chil­dren in turn.

Lea was a con­stant smoker, drank heav­ily and took other drugs. He died of lung can­cer in May 2005 at the age of 58.

This is a well- re­searched, sym­pa­thetic and worth­while book. Much of Lea’s po­etry is quoted, the pho­tos are mag­i­cal and the pub­lisher has man­aged to pro­vide a use­ful in­dex, a rare treat th­ese days.

And to­wards the end of the tale there is an ex­tra di­men­sion, a back story. I won­dered where Lea and his tal­ent re­ally came from: was he partA­bo­rig­i­nal, as he claimed? Were his fore­fa­thers tribal war­riors, or per­haps troubadours and bards, or only store­keep­ers and clerks? He didn’t dis­cover who his birth mother was nor the story of his strangely sig­nif­i­cant an­ces­try un­til just a lit­tle too late, but he did find out, and the story is an af­fect­ing one. I won’t spoil the end­ing: you should read it for your­self. John Tran­ter has pub­lished more than 20 col­lec­tions of verse. His latest, Ur­ban Myths: 210 Po­ems, won the Vic­to­rian Pre­mier’s Prize in 2006 and the NSW Pre­mier’s Prize in 2007. He is the ed­i­tor of the in­ter­net mag­a­zine Jacket ( jack­et­magazine. com).

Aban­doned: Por­trait of Shel­ton Lea by Jenni Mitchell

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