The Bulletin 13 April 2004: Arts & Entertainment
Caged and incorrigible, a drag queen, then a poet. The lure of the forbidden dissolves in a true story of personal redemption.
Inside Out - An Autobiography
"Soon we were stealing breeding canaries from aviaries around the North Shore." This sentence appears early in Inside Out, Robert Adamson's irresistibly readable autobiography. He's writing about his passion for birds as a boy: how his backyard pigeon coop was his refuge -from his problems. What's notable about the sentence is not that it records the first time he broke the law, but that it shows no compunction whatsoever.
At high school, he graduates to bigger and more daring capers. He falls in love with a magnificent creature called a riflebird, "that looked as though it was dressed for a palace costume party". Such birds were rare but Sydney's Taronga Park Zoo had one. Adamson climbs the fence in the middle of the night, breaks in and takes it home in his cockatoo cage.
When the local detectives track him down, he announces he wants to make a full confession, which he signs with great pride. He was now the subject of an official document that would be read out in court. It was to be the first of many.
It all seems oddly predestined: the crime, the punishment, the crime again. The institutional horrors he so vividly describes – boys engaged in forced labour building a road to nowhere; group showering by numbers ("Soap on!" "Soap off!") – were designed to break the spirit. But the result is recidivism, not repentance. ("Welcome back, Adamson.")
In an attempt to escape the cycle, he heads north in 1962 in a Ford V8 with Carol, his first love. As the teenage Bonnie and Clyde barrel up the highway, Adamson feels a huge rush of freedom. They sleep and make love in the back of the car but the idyll is brief. They had been stealing petrol and food. The cops catch up with them, and the cycle goes around again.
Despite bouts of hard work as a pastry-cook, the lure of the forbidden always beckoned, and soon it was back to morphine milkshakes, car theft and shopbreaking, then a trio of NSW jails: Bathurst, Long Bay and Maitland. After he's raped in the first of these, he takes on a new persona. He plucks his eyebrows, develops a mincing walk, becomes a drag queen and gains a protector: the fearsome Dong Delaney.
It's in this period of relative security that he discovers Bob Dylan. Inspired, he tries writing lyrics of his own, only to be told by a visiting priest that they weren't songs, they were poems. Over his two-and-a-half-year sentence, Adamson moves from incorrigible to drag queen to poet – but this isn't a persona, it's the real thing. He doesn't notice the last months of his sentence. He's too busy writing poems, especially about the Hawkesbury River, where his grandfather taught him to fish.
The man photographed in 1971 leaning against his Customline with woolly hair and a fag between his fingers is the real and final Adamson, self-assured and successful. From riflebird to jailbird to song-bird, it's an extraordinary journey, and it's celebrated beautifully here.