Published by Grievous Jones Press
I’ve read this story before in several novels. An aspiring poet hopes to become immortalized through his words, yet he’s stuck in the drudgery of dead end jobs, is perpetually under the influence of booze and falls for the wrong woman. Bukowski wrote it, Richard Perez too in his underrated ‘The Losers’ Club’, yet no matter how often this story is told, how familiar it becomes, it still resonates for an audience of pretenders, dreamers and failures.
Joseph Ridgwell’s ‘Last Days of the Cross’, which is more more-or-less an autobiography, follows Joe, an Englishman toiling in Australia. His working visa has expired and his options appear limited. Joe is also a poet, who hopes to be inspired by the gutter life in Sydney’s notorious Kings Cross.
Sometimes where you read a book can influence how you relate to the story. Half of ‘Last Days…’ was devoured in Stansted Airport. I was killing time before my flight to the Czech Republic. I had six hours to kill, having been dropped off early. Of course I didn’t sit and read for six hours straight. I spent two hours over a cappuccino in Costa Coffee, lurked around WH Smiths for a couple more and sat on an uncomfortable metal seat by some revolving doors until check-in time. The book was finished in a pleasant little café situated smack bang in the centre of a hospital in Prague. The building was a relic of communist rule, bleak, grey and falling apart. If the ambulance took you there, then you wouldn’t fancy your chances of making it out alive. I was at the hospital not for medical reasons, but whilst waiting for a friend who was teaching English to a Doctor. After finishing the book I took out my notepad and began to scribble down a few half-baked poems; the Czechs around me, anxious family members who had visited patients, medical students and strange owl eyed men that just seemed to wander in from the streets – they all viewed me with suspicion. Who was this strange man wearing a Kangol body warmer whilst indoors? What is he reading?
I was raw and rusty having decided to retire from poetry after publishing ‘Gord’. Here I was a struggling poet, still harbouring dreams of writing the poem that will live on long after I perish. I was much like Joe. Hopelessly praying for a miracle.
You know that you’re not going to get a feel good rags to riches tale when you flick through the pages of ‘Last Days….’. Ridgwell’s tale is blunt, with the subtlety of a brick strike; it comes straight from the gut of the writer, and punches the reader below the belt line. You either vomit, or you gulp it down.
I think what surprised me most about the book is the humour. Joe’s on-going battle with his cartoonish landlord Mr Hillwood provides many chucklesome moments, as does his interactions with some of the other tenants. Then there are the jobs – labouring alongside grizzled Aussie builders, manning a peanut stall and the dreaded night shift at a residential home where he is given the most indecent of proposals. You couldn’t write a book like this if you’ve not performed some of the most demeaning tasks possible in exchange for a few lousy dollars.
Out of all Joe’s struggles, be it paying the rent or writing the perfect poem, it is falling in love with the wrong woman that causes the biggest headache for him. Rosie, an innocent looking Aborigine junkie casts an odd spell on Joe. He behaves irrationally, and despite her stealing his laptop, getting him kicked out of his flat and giving him a venereal disease, Joe still pines for his muse.
‘Last Days of the Cross’ will be followed by a prequel titled ‘The Cross’ which will tell us about the time when Joe first arrived in Australia. There will be other books, the aftermath, what happens next. See, Ridgwell writes about what he sees, it makes sense for him to document his experiences. Some of these may well be blurred, exaggerated, or recalled after temporary bouts of memory loss; however these stories will always be authentic. Sometimes that’s all you want from a writer – a little bit of honesty.
You can read an Interview with Joseph Ridgwell here: