The Songwriter - Chapter Two
It was May 1972 when I started my first job in Australia as an apprentice French polisher and spray painter . I worked in a factory with Australians at RMS Kingfisher , a shopfitter in Auburn . Nobody could understand a word I said and for six months I had difficulty understanding Australian slang . I enjoyed my work and got on very well with the tradesmen . One day in the factory a practical joker threw a tin of thinners over me , and as the solvent soaked through my work clothes my skin started to burn . I went in to the locker room to change and a match was struck , suddenly I burst into flames . I managed to pull off my shirt but because of my working boots it was very difficult to get my wrangler jeans off in a hurry .. I ran out from the locker room to the factory screaming as the flames leapt from both my legs . Someone lifted a hot water urn near the locker room and threw the contents over me .In shock I was rushed to St Josephs Hospital in Auburn and treated for 3rd Degree burns to both legs . I was laid up in bed for 6 months unable to walk and receiving workers compensation each week . I lay there in my bed with a steel cage over my legs which prevented the blankets from touching my legs .
My thoughts where of Belfast and the friends I had left behind . My bedroom was a prison being and I was tortured every second by a great homesickness . I waited for the letters to come each week from Belfast . Each letter that came was filled with sorrow with the news of friends who had been either shot dead or arrested and interned .
Suddenly we met another family from Belfast who had arrived at Villawood Hostel . The Liddy family came from the Bone which was very close to Ardoyne . Finally we had made a bond with someone . Mum began to miss home and she cried often . The time passed slowly as my legs improved . Skin grafts where needed . I had regular visits from a local doctor who changed the bandages and painted the wounds with red dye . My meals where brought from the canteen at the hostel .
Mum and Dad had both started work , and soon after did two of my sisters , Marian and Geraldine . My two youngest sisters Terry and Sarah started school at Our Lady Of The Rosary in Fairfield . We began to settle into a new way of life . It was soon time for us to leave Villawood Hostel and we took up residence in our first rental accommodation in Australia . We moved into a 3 Bedroom house in Orchardleigh Street at Guildford . After almost a year I was able to walk again and returned to work in the factory . I tried hard to adapt a new lifestyle but at 16 I felt it too late to change and too soon to adapt , and in the end it was nearly impossible . For a number of years I could not settle . I still missed my friends and found it hard to forget Belfast .
I had a negative outlook on things that came through in my poetry which had become cold and critical . I destroyed much of what I wrote . I was unhappy with my writing and burnt hundreds of poems in the incinerator out in the back garden . I finished my apprenticeship with RMS and secured another apprenticeship as a motor mechanic with Volvo . I still felt uneasy about things and couldn’t settle at all . Everything took its toll and I had a nervous breakdown at the end of 1975 . At 20 years of age , lost and very confused . I returned to Belfast . It was 1976 and shortly after arriving home I was taken in an ambulance to Purdysburn Psychiatric Hospital . I was given electric shock treatment and sedated very heavily for six months . After a year I returned back to Australia . My family never knew me . My appearance had changed . I had put on weight and lost some hair . I had become withdrawn and extremely sensitive about things . I found writing poetry a great therapy , and after a few years something began to happen inside me . I realised now I had to make it work in Australia . So I forced my way into factories and started to change my perspective . I started to make friends which brought me out from the closet where my poetry and I had locked out life . I brought a collection of my poems to my parents . I expected them to laugh at them and make jokes
about my writing . But to my surprise they never did .
I was encouraged by Dad as he sat down and read my work . That moment was very special for me , I watched Dad as he went through my writing . He seemed proud of my work and told Mum I had something . I was delighted to hear him say that . For so long I had kept secret this part of my life and now there stood the poet before them . That evening he gave me a heart to heart about my life , and my writing . He brought them together as one . Dad asked me to write a book on my experiences with my nervous breakdown and the recovery . I had never gave any thought about this topic before and it seemed more than a challenge . I started to write poems that cut open a wide and vivid image of an unbalanced mind . The picture was disturbing and I burnt two hundred and fifty of these new poems . After I destroyed the work I felt as if a great load had been lifted from my shoulders . Maybe that was Dads blessing and what he had meant for me Soon afterwards Dad and I became close . Sometimes we would go for a drink at Greystanes Inn or over to Wentworthville Leagues Club . We started jogging together every Dad and sometimes we would have a swim at Parramatta Pool . I had a new mate and we went everywhere together . I enjoyed his company and went along with him to Rosehill Races and Harold Park Trots . He had made me feel ok about my writing and that was the answer I needed to hear ..As a poet the only expense I had ever gone to was with poetry . It never occurred to me that I could use go a step further and write a song . I could play a few chords and loved music and although the poet became a songwriter , the musician in me had become very self conscious of the level of skill .
I took on guitar lessons with a man called Fred who had placed an advertisement in the newspaper . Every Friday I went to his flat in Auburn for an hour . I discovered new things like bar chords and tempo . I practiced at home between lessons and discovered a new style of my own . It was an early learning experience with the guitar and one that I enjoyed . After about six months Fred was moving away from Auburn and told me he could not teach me anymore . It was then I asked Fred for his help to buy a new Guitar . Early one Saturday morning Fred and I went into Sydney . We parked the car near Eddy Avenue and he knew the exact shop to go . I picked me a Navarra Electric Six String Guitar and a small amplifier , I went to show off my new instrument to Mum and Dad and everyone was all over them . My sisters wanted me to play them a song and for the first time I felt as if a little stardom shone around me . It was on my second guitar , a fender acoustic , that I found my way with music .I had plenty to say and sometimes there wasn’t enough time in a day to write to down the thoughts that drifted through my mind . Although my experience as a poet and songwriter was very lonely , I was happy to exist there with my writing . Since arriving in Australia my writing ability had grown up through blue periods and a mixed set of circumstances .
I travelled around the country and met people in their hometowns and captured images of Australia as a writer . . I often thought that the world could be a better place because of writers and dreamers like me . It never ceases to wonder . Life and all its possibilites .