Barry Dickins pic by Rodger Cummins
Photo courtesy of Rodger Cummins


Barry Leonard Dickins has been a stalwart of the Melbourne literary scene for decades. He is a prolific and award winning author, poet, columnist, playwright, cartoonist and artist. He is renowned for his charming pathos, acerbic wit and piercing insights into society. I caught up with Barry recently to ask what’s next….and I was caught, surprised again, by his beautiful way with words…

 Why are you drawn to art?

 The artistic and social worlds I’m fascinated with have to do mostly with human memory and why it is we forget incredibly exciting and beautiful feelings or words or people only to misremember things like the sun or a treasured book or even a simple thing which we’ve heard or said. All my life I’ve been interested in why people do the things they do; such as Leonardo who once painted an arc angel so realistically on an altar in Florence that when people came in for The Mass they were frightened. They simply couldn’t understand how a boy of fourteen could do something like that with paint and expected the picture was unholy.

 Your play ‘Remember Ronald Ryan’ (a play about the last man executed in Australia) won the 1995 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award. It is currently being performed in Canberra over 20 years after its first release. Can you tell me about this new production of ‘Ryan’?

I am at the moment seeing the fruits of reward for a premiere production of a play entitled ‘Ryan’ which is the last sixty minutes in the Condemned Cell of Ronald Ryan who was Australia’s last hanged person; it is a very contemplative play but infused with hate and bewilderment and pathos and love that I suppose any condemned person would feel when the jig is up.


I was drawn to this bleak story because you tend to identify with executions if you write for your rent in Australia where artists for the most part aren’t required.

Who are required are IT men with no sense of humor or justice and magistrates who adore to imprison Aborigines at every chance.


Your 2011 play ‘Whiteley’s Incredible Blue’ tells the story of one of Australia’s greatest artists and colorful characters – Brett Whiteley. What drew you to his story?

 My play ‘Whitely’s Incredible Blue’ was on at a small theatre a few years ago and I was lucky to have an actor so versatile the audience could see Brett Whiteley right in front of them as if it were a feat of conjuring or seance. I didn’t use a single word of Whiteley but invented his rythym of speech based upon dreams I had of him in a wild tempest.

I only trust excitement and luckily I always wake that way and stay excited until sleep bludgeons me about midnight as a rule and I am finally felled and unavailable for comment.

When I am out walking I want to draw and paint just about everything I see and often remember that Brett Whiteley said ‘I paint in order to see’ when he was once interviewed as to just why he bothered to paint. It is a very beautiful thing to say because it’s just so pretentious it has to be true.


Where do you see yourself in five years time?

 In five years time I know and understand I will still be overexcited and painting away like a dope fiend or writing away like a monk in his gloomy monastery or going to a new movie with my son. I have always as a teacher in schools encouraged pupils to experiment with their materials such as writing and drawing and never to copy yourself.

I also think it’s crucial to be happy in order to live and to dispense with gloom at all costs.


What are you currently working on?

 Last night I saw a couple of people asleep on a nature strip in Carlton at around five in the day and they were fast asleep in the strangest sort of a way really; they were like a couple of ancient Chinese terra cotta sculptures of unconscious peasants and rather than lying down upon the lovely green grass they chose in fact to sit up nice and straight. I knew instantly I would draw them in charcoal as soon as possible as they looked much more like a drawing than hyper reality. There was a bizarre peace about them.


What is it that interests you everyday?

 I am interested in love as I see it presented in all its persuasions and cruelties everywhere I walk in order to see life and life only.

I am a fantastic voyeur who has signed up as a baby to write and draw the meanest things possible in daily life that is the story and the mixing-palette of all our days left.

It is what cruelties and eroticism whispered in lanes and hideous streets that I capture in my mad jar and incorporate into my daily deranged and dignified diary of feelings that will in the end turn into scenes in some new play I am writing whilst unconscious of course!

Barry Leonard Dickins Melbourne