“Please sir I want some more,” was a line that would be immortalised for me in the coming years by the monstrous Mr Demetre, but the book also hovered in my fantasies of the time as a sort of guideline to the kind of education I was in for at Moorabbin Tech. And in many ways, it was not inaccurate.
Oliver Twist, the experts tell us, is immature Dickens, lacking the deft hand and sparkling wit of most of his other works and a giant step backwards from the utter brilliance of Pickwick Papers.
I wonder did Dickens live through this time in the (unfounded) fear that he was only ever good for one book? Instead, he ended up writing more masterpieces than any other novelist. But despite the remarkable characters of Fagin, Artful Dodger and nasty Bill Sykes and naughty Nancy, Oliver Twist is awkward and lacks the depth of his later works, the characters are exaggerated, which is typical Dickens, but in predictable ways rather than unexpectedly as his subsequent creations were, and the book is often just an overstated yarn of crime and punishment with sneering attitudes toward the lower classes. In his later books, he would have made Fagin just as horrible but nevertheless a sympathetic character, Sykes a victim of the social order, and Mr Brownlow would have been a monster for all his airs and graces.
Some might argue that Oliver Twist is the most poorly written great novel of all time, but really there are many many candidates for that distinction. Greatness, more often than not, is disappointingly mortal. Curiously, I did have trouble getting into it and often got bored—maybe I had better literary taste than I knew.... Nar... The truth was that I already knew that, having been born poor, there would be no rich people who would come along and bail me out as they did Oliver (twice) and I would remain poor all my life. Which proved to be true. And that is my real objection to this book—Charles Dickens tried to bullshit me. It would not be the last time he would try it on either, but in the future he would do so with a lot more subtlety and class.
In any case, I felt fore-warned, and since to be a bodgie had never been amongst my minimal ambitions, I was therefore in a dilemma to which only one solution was to be clearly seen. The only way to evade Moorabbin Tech and get to the high school instead would be to master the hitherto ignored art of riding a bicycle.
In those last weeks of the summer holidays of 1957, I could be seen daily on the footpath near my parent’s home appendage to a bicycle purchased hopefully for my birthday several years before, now rusted and cobwebbed with failed benevolence. It had been inherited for a short while by Howie whose immediate and, for me, embarrassing mastery of the machine was hastily acknowledged by the provision on his very next birthday of his own shining brand-new Malvern Star. Thus, the old bike, as it was affectionately known, had lain untouched in the shed for another year until came the time when I could suddenly see how it might serve some worthwhile purpose in my life.