Books & Literature

Book Review: An Unsentimental Bloke: The Life and Work of CJ Dennis, by Philip Butterss

A fascinating and entertaining biography that describes the life of South Australian poet CJ Dennis who was born in 1876 and lived on both sides of the track.

Most Aussies, especially when travelling overseas, will quote, “There was movement at the station…” Onya, Banjo, gives us a way of spotting other Aussies!  The next most common poet that many Australians either learned about at school or somehow can randomly quote would be CJ Dennis.

It was Dennis’ determination to capture a more authentic “ordinary” Aussie voice that has earned him a place in history. Philip Butterss has now given us an insight into the man behind the writing – who was CJ Dennis?

anunsentimentalbloke200CJ Dennis was born Clarence Michael James Dennis in Auburn up in the mid-north of South Australia on 7 September 1876. As he grew up, he hated the name Clarence or Clarrie, so much so that he’d tell people his first name was Charles or use various other nicknames. As he says in his poem The Play from Songs of a Sentimental Bloke:

“Wot’s in a name?” she sez.
“Struth, I dunno.”

His mother died while he was young and so his maiden aunts took over his maternal care. As such, his upbringing alternated between the front bar of the mid-north pub his father owned and the genteel residence of his aunts in Norwood. As a teenager, Dennis even wrote an ode to Norwood as he liked the suburb so much.

From such opposite types of backgrounds, CJDennis grew up to become observant of differences, with a keen sense of humour as well as an eye on the political environment. Much of his writing may seem to be obviously funny but simultaneously showing keen insight and giving critique to the political environment of the time.

Philip Butterss has written a fascinating book that describes the life of Dennis in a way that is more than the run-of-the-mill, flat text than some biographies can become; he has made Dennis come to life and also created a very entertaining read.

Butterss may be better known to some as an academic teaching at the University of Adelaide – another of “South Australia’s own” although, opposite to CJDennis, he was born in Melbourne and moved to Adelaide.

He has a talent for making history come to life, especially in his depiction of events that occurred on the streets that South Australians walk down today.

Reviewed by Michelle Baylis

Rating out of 10:  7

Published by: Wakefield Press
Released: March 2014
RRP: $34.95 paperback, $12.95 eBook

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