Australian Biography

Smoky Dawson - full interview transcript

Tape of 11

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Smoky, what's your earliest memory?

My earliest memories: I go back to the first time I saw the world and that was in a place called Warrnambool, Victoria. You see I was born in 1913, two years before Gallipoli as a matter of fact. My father had gone off there to fight for his country and became a casualty. Got the DCM for his bravery, but was a casualty. And so when he came back he resided in Warrnambool. And my first glimpse of the world was being dressed up as a little soldier boy with puttees and all those kind of things like soldiers wear, and leading a parade down the main street. You see, I wasn't Smoky Dawson then. I was a little boy called Herbie, Herbie, and I was only five. And my cousin, she was about my age too. Her name was Daisy, a very old-fashioned name. She has long passed on. But my memories were in Warrnambool, but I was born in Collingwood, Melbourne, Victoria. That's a long time ago. So the Smoky of today is ... was a different person then.

So your earliest memory is actually appearing in public, to applause?

That was. Actually ... speaking ... that was my first public performance. And I do recall lying on the stage of a theatre when they had the movies, these silent movies of the war. And I was lying on the stage as a casualty, my arm in a sling and Daisy bending over me, dressed as a Red Cross nurse, with a water bottle, giving me a drink, like a wounded soldier. I think that wrung a few tears out of people and raised a lot of money for the soldiers.

And do you remember enjoying the feeling of the audience watching you?

I didn't have any feeling that people watched me. I don't think that children really know that people are watching them. They only look at other little children. But I do remember following a big white horse and there was a great soldier on it with a sword, and it had a lovely white tail. And I kept running forward and grabbing this horse by the tail. And I'd been ... I've had that feeling with horses ever since. That's why I love them so much, these four-legged friends. [Laughs]

Now were all your memories of that time as happy as that?

Not really. I think if I look at my childhood, I look at it as another person really, to really get the feeling. It was really a life that was filled with trauma, pain, mainly fear.

Why was that?

Well in my childhood, you see, a child can't understand why he should get beaten and why such violence should come to him. And I was aware that all these things around me were happening with my brothers and sisters. And my father, of course, used to have these bouts, due to his illness. He'd get onto the alcohol and become a different man. And so I got no love. I couldn't feel that love. And I only have vague memories of my mother. In essence, I'd say, that I can't really remember my mother at all. Just as somebody moving around with loving and caring and trying to defend me. By the age of six she had passed away, and my elder brother, Les, had gone out swimming at a place called Eltham, Kangaroo Grounds in Melbourne and had drowned. That was on Christmas Day. So it was one of these things. All these things happening in such a short life that when I look back it's so easy to remember.

What did your mother die of?

That I don't know. I really don't know. And I haven't even bothered to look up the records. And I don't even have a photo of my mother. I think there is one, somewhere. Probably some of my cousins might have it. I don't even have a photo of my father. All things move so quickly and my life has been such a momentous one, moving fast and getting out of childhood as fast as I could, so I could be a man quickly and look after myself.

So your mother did ... You do have memories of your mother trying to look after you?

Oh yes, I do remember on one occasion, back in Warrnambool, and I remember it was in a chemist shop. My father was a chemist and I remember all the sponges and all the scented things, and perfumes and lineaments of the shop. And this great big glass bowls with coloured water in it. And it had a stairway leading upstairs and I could see my mother coming down there, pursued by my father. And I knew ... and she grabbed me by hand and run me out the back and he was chasing her. He was very violent.

So he was violent to her as well?

Yes and I was behind her and she was shielding me. I can see that all happening now. And I see a decanter falling over and the glass shattering. And I remember she was bleeding in the eye. She must have been hit with the glass and then, of course, it's faded now. I don't see it any more. And the next thing I know is that I'm going to the hospital where she is dying. But before that I was living in Clifton Hill. Now I'm moving very quickly now from Warrnambool. I was about seven - seven years old - and my father came home and looking very, very angry. Big heavy coat on him. He'd been drinking heavily. And he said to my sister ... [INTERRUPTION]

What do you remember about your mother's death?

Oh, it happened very quickly. I can recall when my father was working at the dispensary in Clifton Hill ... He was always mixed up with medicine. In fact, he trained to be a doctor before he went away. And I remember he used to come home and he'd be very, very drunk and my mother used to send me out with my sister to bring him home, to find him. And we'd find him somewhere in the Clifton Hill Gardens, laying on the ground, prostrate and we'd help him up. These two kids helping this drunken man home, to get him home to bed. And then, of course, there are just sort of flashes. I remember her. She was in bed and it was on my birthday. And he brought me in and she was under sedation. And I remember them saying to her, 'Here's Herbie, Emily', and I went up and I kissed her. And after that she was taken to the hospital. And it was a stormy night, a most violent night. And my father came home and he said, 'I'm going to the hospital', and he said to my sister who is quite a few years older than me, 'Scrub the kids up and bring them in later will you'. He went off and I don't know what happened but I wandered out into the street. I found myself wandering out into the storm. And I wandered up there to the Clifton Hill railway station where there is this big bridge over the top. It's still there I believe. And I climbed up the stairs and leant over the rail, looking down at the trains passing underneath. And here's the wind and the rain and the lightning striking, but I had no fear of it. I was numb with cold. My hands were clutching the rail, looking at the trains going down. Just caught up with steam and train and lightning and storm, but lost. Because I didn't know where to go. I'd sort of gone into another world where I was alone and I didn't know where to go. And this is where my sister found me. She went out there, calling out, 'Herbie, Herbie', and I could just vaguely hear her calling out to me with this wind whistling around me. I can see it all now. This lightning, lightning happens. This is how she found me in the lightning flash up on the bridge. Where else could she look? She climbed up there and put her arms around me to show that she cared. And I loved my sister. She was like my mother - took the place of my mother. She was much older and always in defence of me against my father. So ...

How many children were there in the family?

There were five altogether. I had my brother Les, who was drowned. He was the eldest and then there was Peter, and there was Laura and my brother Ted. And me of course.

Where did you come in the family? Where did you come in the family? You were the youngest?

No I was the second youngest. My brother was two years younger than me: Ted. He has since passed on. So through all these years I'm the sole remaining member of the family.

Now when you found that your mother had actually died, do you remember what you felt?

Well I've experienced a lot of this in recent years. All my loved ones going. When I see others lose lives and lose their loved ones I know just what they go through. But to a child, where that is your protection and you've been brought up, it was very, very distraughting and she took me in. I remember in this hospital, [my sister] taking me up to ... upstairs and I'm leaning over the balcony waiting to be called in. Then somebody lifted me over and I kissed her. That was the last time I saw my mother alive. She was dying then. And my brother and I went outside. Little Teddy - I don't think he was aware of anything really and we leant over the rails and looking down below, both of us, pouring our eyes out with a flood of tears. And how I got home, I probably [was] carried home. But I remember ... I remember in the middle of the night someone coming into my room, probably my aunts, and all crying, you know, to tell me my mother had died during the night. And that were the last thing. I just sobbed and sobbed and sobbed, and so it went on. And then, of course, following that, within six months of that, my brother got drowned on Christmas Day.

How did that happen?

I was sitting in the same bed - sitting out there on Christmas Day. He went out. He was a victim of my father too. He used to get unmerciful beatings. My father used to come in with a lamp and with this dog lead, and my brother would be waiting in the other room, and [my father would] go in there and somebody would have to hold the lamp up and strip him off and belt into him. And when he ... He ran away. He was a wood turner. He'd had his first job. He made this little wooden pistol. Poor Les. I remember [my father] came home one night and he said, 'I'll find the boy if it's the last thing I do'. He felt guilty. [Les had] gone out with his mates you see, from work. And they had a picnic out at Kangaroo Grounds at Eltham. They all decided to go in for a swim. He was a good swimmer, but what had really happened - he got caught in snags, undergrowth, and one of those whirlpools. So he wasn't found. And my father came home this night and he had a block and tackle. He had everything. 'I'm going to find the boy', and he was the one to find him. He found him floating dead on the side of the river with all this underbrush. And he was to see this white body with all the scars on, that he had put there. I think that, for a while, that calmed my father down, to see his handiwork, what he had done to his boy. I can't help but feel the emotion within me now, thinking about that. It's many, many years now and terrifying really. When he went, of course, I had to turn to my brother Peter. And poor Ted, of course, he looked to me. We all came in line for these beatings, this child abuse.

Did that include your sister?

My sister, of course, oh yes. I'll never forget my sister. She was the second oldest and she was put in a convent to get her out of the way. She went through a lot of trauma too.

He beat her as well?

Oh yes. Yes. So he put her in the convent. And she did a lot of beautiful crochet work and the nuns were very good to her. And she is very lucky she was there, because she had peace. And so ...

Describe what would happen in the household. You'd go to school and come home from school and just wait for this to fall on you?

Oh yes, yes. I went to Prince of Wales Park School. See it all now. They were the very early years. Peppercorn trees, pea shooters. A man called Mr. Darby. Everybody ... He had a bald head and everybody was having pea shots with a pea shooter, trying to hit the bald head. But he couldn't find out who did it, so we were all kept in. For the sin of one, we all were kept in. But I remember coming home. Of course, as kids you kick a tin along the way and by the time I got home I was getting a trouncing for that because ... I suppose, in a way it was justified that we were going through hard times. My father was still working at the dispensary. And of course boots were expensive. And of course most boys kick the front out of them, so you weren't allowed to wear them. Only for school and off they came.

Did he need a reason to hit you? Did he always have a reason to hit you?

You know the old saying, you always hurt the one you love. Most of all he loved me. He really loved me. But he wasn't able to show that - only when he was sober. And many a time I'd be sitting on his knee and he'd rub his bristles, whiskers on my face and he'd say, 'Why are you so naughty?' and I didn't think I was naughty. But I suppose some kids ... All kids have times when they let themselves loose. But they're in a different world to an adult. You've got to understand children and we played amongst ourselves and you didn't know whether that was right or wrong. But it was the drink that did it you see. And I do know that when he was a boy, my grandmother told me ... She was a wonderful person, and she was the only one that could lay oil on troubled waters and come down and stay with us and nothing would happen. And she used to say he was a wonderful son. A wonderful son. And he had a great voice. He was a baritone singer. He was at the old Bijou in Melbourne and they were the days of the top hats and hansom cabs and cobblestones.

So he was a professional singer?

Yes. He used to go under the name of Parker, Frederick Parker. And he used to do what they call 'descriptive baritone'. It's almost like opera.

What ... what was that?

Well he'd come out on stage and all those, melodramatic ... He'd come out there and he'd be reading a telegram: how he'd put his money on a horse and instead of saying, 'Oh I put all this money on this horse and it has lost', he said (SMOKY SINGS) 'A telegram boy had come to the door. I read what it says. I cannot believe it. I have lost it all. Goodbye'. Bang. And down he drops. Curtain, curtain, up and down. Crowd roaring. Acculations (sic).

So it was story telling through song?

Very dramatic. He was always a great actor. I have endowed a lot of his qualities. I probably have a lot of his ... because he had a great ... he always wanted to solve the world's problems, except his own. Great philosopher. I have some of his old letters at the back there - beautiful handwriting. And I later acquired that in my skills because when I went to school ... I was about eight, [and] at Faraday Street School I won the best writer of the year, the best composer of the year. All my books were put up in the Exhibition Building in Melbourne - the work of a school boy. And it was written on Anzacs strangely enough, my composition. And I remember the last words of that was read out to the class - what I'd written: 'And their names shall be eternal, written by the stars in the midnight sky'.

So there was something of the poet in you?

Yeah, I think you could say that. Yes, I have acquired a lot from it you know. There's a great balance in life, you know, because it seems as life is lows and highs and it's what they call the mechanics or the dynamics of life.

But as a little boy you didn't see that you were inheriting from your father anything except these dreadful beatings and the violence.

Yes. That was ... I have been to the point of where ... At later times, when we moved from there, I started doing a lot of running away. I couldn't stand it. I started taking up selling newspapers in the city of Melbourne in the days of the old cable trams. And do you know they were fantastic times. I remember when I was getting on those cable trams, coming round Spring Street, and the gripman would be in the centre there with his grips and his goggles on. And he say, 'Mind the kerb, mind the curve', and it was only doing about ten knots, as it jerked its way around the corner, coming down into Bourke. But I mean, you could milk a cow as you went by, it was so slow. Anyway, I used to jump from one tram to another selling newspapers. And then what money I had I'd go take it all back to the newsagents and I'd get my tips and the tips came very quickly because I always had numb fingers. I had bare feet and numb fingers and [was] very slow in giving change. And people were very impatient in those days. They wouldn't wait for the change. I knew I always had a little bit more money over than ... They were my tips. And with what I made out of the newspapers, I'd wander down and look at the Palace Theatre just around the corner from the Princess in Bourke Street, and I'd look in all the fish and chip shops and I'd look in all the big windows and see all the goodies, [thinking] I wish I could have that. [INTERRUPTION]

So what age were you when you began to think that you might have to start relying on yourself for survival?

I was about twelve. About twelve. I'd thought about it when I was eight, when I was selling those newspapers, see, because I was working for a living then. And I was always singing. That's one thing my dad did for me - and that was he taught me how to use my voice: 'You project', and could I bellow - because I was used to yelling out when I got a hiding.

Do you think it strengthened your vocal cords?

Sure did. It didn't strain them. I've never had laryngitis for ... through the fault of using my vocal cords the wrong way. It's always from a virus. But never from calling out and shouting after horses and kids and whatever. But those days there, my father was very much in show business then. And he was always dramatising and always wanting me to listen to his philosophies until I nearly [would] go to sleep. Because there were pages and pages and pages of what is wrong with the world, but not what was wrong with he. But no, eight seemed to me a very adult time because I felt I was a man. Anybody who can jump from one cable tram to another and do it expertly and make a living from it, and find a way of survival ... You see, we are animal and when our back's to the wall, we become very inventive. And Herbie became very inventive then, because he had his back to the wall. Because I didn't dare go to my grandmother because she'd take me home. Because she loved her son.

She couldn't see that he was abusing you?

Oh she knew it was going on, but she thought the time will come. And she used to come down as much as she could. And he wouldn't play up, you see. So in the meantime I was hiding in rockeries and in old buildings, in trains. I'd get in the train to Box Hill and stay there all night in the carriage until it went the next morning, then jump over the fence at Jolimont. And down I'd go in through Richmond, running for my life, expecting to be picked up by the police any time. And I became very expert at that: jumping trains.

So what happened when you ran away like that? You'd go away for a few days and then go home to your father.

Well what I did I used to then walk. I'd walk all the way from the city to my grandmother's and then I'd hide in the wash house down at the back. And I used to get into the trough - you know those old cement troughs, all filled up with clothes ready for washing, [and] out they'd go. And I'd have my legs in one side and my bottom in the other. Like that. And I'd cover the clothes over me. I was so small you see. And that become my bed for the night. And I was able to watch through the window to see if she was coming out the back door, and I'd be gone before they were up and out on the street again. But one morning she knew I was there. She sent down my cousin, Nina, that's on my uncle's side. She said, 'Come up to the house. You must be hungry'. And then Gran came out and said, 'Oh naughty boy, naughty boy. We've got to take you home again'. I said, 'I know'. And she bought me a pair of nice boots and socks and took me home. We were then living at Reservoir, [had] moved out to Reservoir. And I thought that's the worst place in the world. Nobody'll know I'm there. And it was just an old hut built out of galvanised iron and bark and we were right beside the Plenty River. We had to go down with buckets and get this water out of the creek and bring it back. Just earthen floor with linoleum over it and hessian walls.

And was this because your father had gone through his money drinking?

Yes, well to economise. We couldn't afford to rent a house, because wherever he went he couldn't pay the rent. So ...

But he managed to hold down a job.

Yes well he had a very strong ally in his brother Peter, his brother Pete, who served time with him in Gallipoli. And he also was mentioned in despatches too, in France. He went across to France - became a victim there too. And I remember in papers sent to my grandmother that said, 'If ever I was proud of my brother, I was on that day when I saw him at Gallipoli dragging men out of shell holes with blood streaming out of his ears, into the first aid tent, and then collapsing'. So you see although I'd been through all that trauma with my father, the day arrived when he knew me as Smoky - met me in the street and sobbed like a child on my shoulder, 'My little baby Herbie', and how sorry he was for me. And I had compassion for him, because I saw this man, a victim of a war and I was the victim of his war. You see so this is where the age of understanding come. But I had to be grown up a little, be adult you see. But that was my childhood and was filled with a lot of hate at the time, and fear. You see, so hate doesn't do it, you see. When you have time to analyse it you find we are all victims, that there's no responsibility there. And all those things I felt very sorry for my father and what a terrible life he must have had. I really do.

What used to happen when he beat you?

Oh, I think he was trying to get something out of him. And he used to tell me later that ...

But from your point of view, what happened? What would typically happen with the sort of beating you got from your father?

It devastated me to find I was so fearful I could have died. My heart was ready to die. In fact, I put it in my book. I might as well say it now too, and my wife said, 'Tell it all, tell it all'. There'll be no skeletons in my cupboard when I die. The world will know it now. And that was I was home there one night, sitting down. It was in Fitzroy, the back of the Carlton brewery. I remember that well. And we were sitting at the table, my mother had died and I had my stepmother with me then. And of course to appease him she used to belt me. She said, 'I'll belt you now to save him giving you one when he gets home. I've already belted him, dear'. Well this night it was different. I was sitting at the table and my father would come in and sit there at the head, and my brother, Ted, here, and my stepmother opposite. And she'd serve out the dinner - all the vegetables. Oh we were well fed: pumpkin, peas, everything. Plenty of vegetables, but I hated them. I was sick with it because the fear in my wouldn't allow me to eat. And then I'd hear the tread. He was late coming home. And this very heavy tread of a man drunk. And the door would fling open. There he'd be standing, filling the whole doorway with his hat down over his head, blood streaming on his face, this old overcoat on, walking in then. And he'd be trying to mouth words. Somebody had hit him over the head with a bottle of beer. And I looked up to the wall and there was the dog lead. That was the usual thing - a dog lead. And he came. As soon as he got in the door, she rushed to take off his overcoat and he looked, staring straight at me. And I just going sick inside. My whole inside was shrinking up. 'What are you looking at? What are you looking there for? There's nothing up there. What are you looking for?' 'Nothing. Nothing Dad, nothing'. Then I started to cry. As soon as I started to cry he got the strap. Oh and that started it. So he made towards me. You know, I can see it now just as if it's all happening today. I'm sitting there and I can see him coming towards me. I can see my mother in the background and this man, here, is going to take my life. And as he gets towards me, he grabbed me by the throat, and next thing I'm up and I can't breathe and I'm dangling. And I can feel everything coming round my throat - the strangulation. I'm trying to breathe and I can't breathe. Fighting for breath. Can't get it. And then suddenly I just felt myself going down a well, down, down, and I can just see his face at the top. And the voices in the background. Next thing I was coming too again. She had knocked him out. To save me. He'd have murdered me. Then I went up to bed. I had a sore throat. My brother,Ted. Never touched Ted, always touched me. Terrible. It's ... I think it's good to get it out, you know, because ... it's very difficult to ... It must be there in my subconscious mind. I couldn't talk like that. Yet he must have suffered too, knowing he'd done that. And then there were episodes too when we went out to Reservoir, like I said, and he came home. I'd run away a few times by then. He said, 'You won't run away this time'. So he padlocked me. Put chain and padlock on me. And he gave orders to my mother. I slept in a little tent outside the bark hut. He said, 'You go to school tomorrow. You'll lay with that. You won't run away with those on'. So I got a ... I was always so close, always sitting right up at the top of the table and the next thing, bang, a smack in the nose. You know. I was getting fisticuffs and ... it's lucky I didn't break my nose. I was getting bashed all the time. And it was just a life of 'How will I ever live it out?' And I was trying to plead someone ... don't the ... I was frightened to go to somebody in case he'd catch me. And even when I ran away I felt that every ... every one ... [on] every corner he'd be there. I didn't realise that he wouldn't find me in a crowd, although we was only about five million people then. But that, that ... at Reservoir, that was the turning point, chained up. And my stepmother was given orders. She'd unlock me in the morning when I got up. So after that I'd had these beatings. I had all the scars on my back like my own brother, Les, had. So I made up my mind that I was going. So my stepmother said, 'Before you go to school, there's some groceries I want you to go and get at the shop', which was about half a mile away, near the railway. And we walked there with our dog Tipperary, little fox terrier, and Ted. [We] walked across. And I remember going into the butcher's shop, getting all these things that she given me the money for. And I came out and as we got outside there was a train waiting to go out. This was the end of the line at Reservoir. 'I'm going to get on that train if it's the last thing I do'. That's what I did. And I said, 'Ted, I can't go back'. And he said, 'Oh don't leave me. I can't go back and face it'. So he had to carry all these things. And as the train was about to go out I made one dive for it and jumped in and got in the carriage. I had no ticket. And I looked out through the carriage and I saw Teddy walking across the paddock, sobbing his head out. And this old dog. Carrying the meat, half hanging out under one arm, and a loaf of bread in the other. God knows what he'd get when he got home. And I made for my ...

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