First day back at my desk means dealing with the big things first, and looming largest is the need to honour a fallen hero of mine.
‘I am not a star,’ he wrote in one of his vivid memoir pieces for Griffith Review, ‘but I am famous in Biloela, where I grew up, and all fame is local and subject to the indifferent stoke of time’s air brush.’
When I was growing up, he was already a legend-in-the-making, a decade older, long-gone from Biloela, and making his name at the Royal Shakespeare Company by the time I finished high school.
I didn’t know him back then, but I knew his mum, the ever-gracious and beautifully spoken Mrs Maureen Brown, who worked in Creevey’s music store in Biloela. Mum and I would buy our Abba and Neil Diamond records and Mrs Brown would keep us up-to-date on Bille’s latest and most thrilling achievements on the stage in Brisbane, and then good heavens, in London, while keeping an eagle eye on the shenanagans of the store’s teenaged browsers.
I remember her once pointedly asking my good mate Kevin if she could help him after he’d spent an inordinate amount of time looking but not buying.
‘Um,’ he hesitated, searching the shelves behind her for inspiration. ‘Could I have a can of Coke, please?’
‘This is a music store,’ she intoned in her mellifluous voice. ‘We don’t sell cans of Coca Cola.’
‘Oh,’ said Kevin dead-pan, ‘could I have a can of Fanta then please?’
Bille roared when I told him that story decades later. As he did when my friend Sue recounted her favourite Mrs Brown story in which that most proper of matriarchs kept a secret stash of contraband tapes of banned musicals like HAIR under the counter for special customers like Sue’s Mum.
His was a generous spirit that always found time for anyone with a Biloela connection. He proved it by launching a small novel called Dust by an unknown writer for no reason other than it was set in Biloela, the landscape of their youth.
In his short memoir piece Playing with fire published by Griffith Review, he finished a poignant tale from his childhood with the telling rider: ‘What happened, happened, but not quite as well as a short story can lead you to believe. All memory is fiction and has different rules from life.’
Like great fiction, Bille Brown will live on in many memories, not just as a boisterous giant of the theatre, an actor, a playwright, and an evocative writer, but as a big-hearted man who not only inspired generation of kids to dream big dreams, but who helped in his own inimitable style to make them come true.
My deepest sympathies to his sister Rita, friends and family for their loss. Bille was a great presence and leaves both a huge gap and a lasting legacy.