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