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6 December 2013

Dennis

Photograph by Josh Thies

Recently, Dennis took out The Big Issue Brisbane’s Best Dressed Vendor Award, an achievement he credits to collared shirts and socks. “When you have been raised by an army man, grew up going to Cubs and Scouts and spent years in the Army Reserve, you are always going to be neat and tidy,” he says. “I loved being in uniform. I was always proud of it.”

Raised in Kent, England, in the swinging sixties, Dennis remembers the era of The Beatles and Cliff Richards as if it were yesterday. “I have a picture-perfect memory,” he says. “I remember a happy childhood, growing up in a Georgian mansion full of kids. The British Government paid for the place because my mother fostered children. She fostered children all her life. She was named England’s Fairy Godmother in 1962 and Queensland’s Mother of the Year in 1978. I’m very proud of my mum. She was the one who told me I was adopted. My mother had been Jamaican and my father Irish. I always said I had a bit of Harry Belafonte in me.”

The family migrated to Australia in 1970, when Dennis was 14. He remembers poring over a big map of Australia before they left and dreaming about kangaroos. “We settled in Brisbane and I’ve been here ever since. I always had work – the meatworks, General Motors Holden, the railways – up until 2003, when everything went pearshaped. I was living in a pub, drinking was probably getting the worst of me and the railways had become a pretty hostile place to work. I lost my job, got behind on the rent and, to cut a long story short, ended up in a men’s hostel in the city. Nasty places, those. You could get bashed for cigarettes, and when the lights went out the thieves came out.

“I worked in the kitchen there for 15 months, but kept the wrong company and got kicked out. That’s when I found myself homeless for a year or so. Street life scared me. You had to keep moving, never getting any sleep, waking at every noise. When I did move into a boarding house, I hit the lowest point in my life. I was bored and very depressed, drinking in a hot, dusty little room and having dark thoughts. You could say the support workers saved my life by getting me to hospital.”

Dennis is cheerful today, with a one-bedroom unit in a nice suburb. “No undesirables come to my door anymore,” he says. “I live day by day. I don’t plan ahead. I just takethings as they come. I’ve always been into music and still hold an ambition to sing. I went in lots of talent quests when I was young, hitting the high notes in ‘Unchained Melody’ [the 1960s Righteous Brothers’ hit]. If I could give up the cigarettes and get my voice back I could give it another go.”

Dennis sells The Big Issue three days a week to the commuters and tourists at Brisbane’s South Bank. “I’m getting very good at giving directions! I’d like to see more people supporting the magazine. It’s been good for me. I had the interview at The Big Issue office then, bang, I was on my way!”

Interview by interview by Judy Johnson/photograph by Josh Thies
Dennis sells The Big Issue at the South Bank Train Station in Brisbane