Reviewed by Ian Lipke
Les Twentyman and Robert Hillman, separately leaders in their respective fields, together have produced one of the great biographies of the twenty-first century. This is Les Twentyman’s own story – the unassuming hero of the down-and-outs whose lives are suddenly changed by the interjection of a down-to-earth personality into their weary lives, a man with a no-nonsense, non-judgmental way of getting things done.
This is an uplifting book. It’s a book that makes its readers fiercely proud to be Australian but also guilty that perhaps they could have given more to the desperate and the needy. Within the pages of this book are many tales and numerous anecdotes. There is the simple slip of the tongue when an Acting MC introduced Les Twentyman as “the Virgin of the Year for 2006” (250) and the story of the dreadful measures meted out by the IRA and the Protestant hitmen in Northern Ireland.
The stories are good for a laugh or a cry but there is something much more important being told in this book. For this is a history of a movement that has gone by many names not least being its current designation of Les Twentyman Foundation. The name is singularly appropriate because it focuses attention on the man who has given his all to look after addicts, drunks and at risk children for over fifty years. There is no glamour in this work. Paramedics given the job of cleaning up after users of ice and heroin will attest to that. It is basic, it is smelly, it is dirty and it is vitally important.
Les Twentyman – the mouth that roared – is a very vocal youth outreach worker and humanitarian who has campaigned since the early 1980s on issues ranging from homelessness, drug abuse, prison reform and social welfare. He has been recognized for his work by federal, state and local identities and for his big, generous heart by the ordinary man in the street. But little more than lip service has been paid to the approaches to human fallibility that he advocates relentlessly. As readers make their way through the book the very saneness of Twentyman’s arguments beat them about the head and they come to understand the frustration the man feels when his thoughts are met by government inaction.
Because he is so understanding of human frailty and so unassuming, Twentyman is the person others go to when episodes escalate to that savage line between frustration and madness. Called in by school principals, policemen, and other social workers Twentyman has experienced the lot. He has been a solitary mourner at the unmarked grave of countless young people who have OD’d or suicided. He has taught in schools where the school bus was forbidden for use in transporting students to training at a swimming pool because it was needed for some obscure religious purpose. Controversially, he has called kids “human dustbins” because the school tuck-shop fare was of such very low quality, and the children were required to buy it.
There is a story that Les Twentyman tells in some detail that must send a shiver down every reader’s spine. Two teenage girls are preparing a meal together. One is using a meat cleaver to cut up vegetables that the other girl has purchased from a supermarket. The girl with the cleaver notices that there are no sprouts, wants to know why, doesn’t accept the excuse she hears, and attacks her friend with the cleaver. Twentyman explains that growing up is a group effort and if there is no opportunity to interact and relax within a group, tensions run high. If a girl has gone for four days without drugs, if she has no group to chill out with, then nerves are raw and the action with the meat cleaver is almost predictable. Kids need other kids in a safe environment where they can unwind from the pressure cooker existence they currently lead. Twentyman wants “programs that make kids think of membership in a gang as a poor alternative. It’s not rocket science. Open doors for kids, and a good number will walk through” (136).
Twentyman reserves his most potent virulence for the television crews that make the less advantaged the targets of mainstream community wrath. He instances the television coverage of the Paxton children as a particular instance of social cruelty. His other significant target is the politicians or high profile community members who want to lock-up ‘his people’ or ‘send them back to where they came from’. Shortsighted and cruel, these people, in Twentyman’s view, prey on the vulnerable for their own instant gratification, but fail to realise that their attacks force their targets to join a gang for protection.
This book is a major fight against stupidity. It uses Les Twentyman’s life story as a vehicle to highlight the terrible circumstances that many of our citizens meet each day. It gives hope because the Les Twentyman Foundation is becoming better known and supported. It also presents the chagrin that comes from knowing what governments should be doing and what citizens should be clamouring for, but are not.
A tremendously important memoir that all Australians should read.
By Les Twentyman with Robert Hillman
Wild Dingo Press