This slim work is a collection of reminiscences of Robin Dalton’s childhood in a now-vanished Kings Cross. It’s brief, but reads entertainingly well, a collision of multiculturalism and religion with crime, the theatre and a distinct feeling of familial uniqueness. There’s spinster aunts, simple neighbours and a passing parade in a house which feels more like a cabaret than a homestead – but it’s never stuck in a self-congratulatory gear.
It seems fairly standard with reviews of this work to mention that it’s singular in its opening. The vehicular death of a great aunt is the subject, and while this in itself is a reasonably dramatic thing to start with, it’s also worth quoting in its entirety as it highlights Dalton’s precise prose.
My great-Aunt Juliet was knocked over and killed by a bus when she was eighty-five. The bus was travelling very slowly in the right direction and could hardly have been missed by anyone except Aunt Juliet, who must have been travelling fairly fast in the wrong direction.
Later, of course, we discover that such wry brevity is genetic: Dalton describes receiving the news from her father, thus:
My father broke the news to me, in England, by a cable: ‘JULIET SKITTLED,’ it said. ‘LOVE, DAD.’
The father in question is noted – he’s remembered with two historic plaques outside a train station – Kings Cross physician Jim Eakin, known for treating gangsters and housewives alike in periods now commonly mined for lurid crime drama. He also accidentally shot himself in the knee and once taught a French visitor that asking servicemen about trouser-snakes was a good conversation starter, so there’s definitely a bunch of enviable anecdotes to fill out the recollections of a free-wheeling childhood.
There’s something endearing about the work in the same way original Ginger Meggs strips catch the mind. It’s a testament to a disappeared, almost mythical Australia from before the War. A time where the peacocks of strangeness would rule the town, rather than be choked into sameness or, worse, a sanitised version of nonconformity. It’s a portrait of a thriving, but safe place where there’s nothing really harmful. This is, of course, a bit of a furphy, as rose-coloured glasses definitely apply when one is writing of childhood idylls, but Dalton applies just enough grit and sense of occasional privation that such indulgence is let slide.
I wish I’d grown up in this kind of bohemian household. Dalton – a literary agent and film producer – turned out all right, and the book is proof her stories are better than mine.