From Singo (2002)

US-born former TV journalist and news producer Gerald Stone in his biography of Sydney advertising man John Singleton describes Singleton’s seemingly unlikely friendship with the Reverend Bill Crews:

Reverend Bill Crews and John Singleton at Loaves and Fishes Restaurant in Ashfield. (Brett Costello, News Corp)

‘John hates to admit it but in a funny way, he is quite religious,’ Crews smiles. ‘He reminds me a lot of King David. We’re told David was a real bastard, you know, but God loved him.’

At Crews’ mention of King David, I think to myself what an excellent choice. If Singleton could be compared to any character in history, that’s the one. David was, of course, the little boy who was brave and resourceful enough to kill Goliath; but he was also much more than that. He was the absolute larrikin of the Old Testament, filled with mischief. When his future father-in-law, King Saul, ordered him to bring back the foreskins of 100 Philistines as the price for marrying his daughter – a mind-boggling task by any measure – David somehow manages to come back with 200! He was a notorious womaniser who grabbed the beautiful but married Bathsheba for his own by ordering her warrior husband to certain death in battle. With a few drinks in him, he was also known to whip off his clothes and dance naked in front of a throng of admiring maidens. He tempted the wrath of God constantly with such misbehaviour, but always found a way to win back Divine favour with an audacious deed or, better yet, a few well-chosen words. David, like John Singleton, was a brilliant copywriter. His psalms were the jingles of his day, proclaiming the greatness of the Lord.

Crews acknowledges that some of his clerical colleagues in the Uniting Church and any number of his parishioners have been scandalised by his friendship with that ‘dreadful’ Singleton. Like Ted Noffs before him, he refuses to pass judgement when he knows how little can separate the best from the worst in a man.

‘I think it’s all part of being such a passionate person,’ Crews suggests. ‘People of that nature aren’t quite sure where they fit in because their negative passions are as strong as their positive – both come from the same source. So it can be very difficult for them. A section of the community sees John as capable of behaving badly and he probably has convinced himself he is too. But the fact is he has this intensely religious streak. Sometimes I’m sure he does things just to prove to himself he’s not a goody-goody!’

Singleton, to this day, occasionally drops by the Loaves and Fishes just to show support by his presence and chat with the patrons. At lunch hour the rows of tables are filled with those on hard times: the unemployed, the homeless, the elderly or disabled, battered old winos and pale-faced young drug addicts, or people who are just plain lonely and desperate for company.

Crews especially remembers one day when Singleton told a group of men: ‘Well, guys, today I’m up so I can help you. Tomorrow I might be down and I might need help from you.’ Which, as the minister points out, was not as far-fetched as it might seem. A lot of the people he dealt with had the rebellious spirit of Singo – a compulsion to push their limits and test their luck. It was really a very thin line dividing the high and mighty from the down and outs.

‘If they’re up, they’ve succeeded; if they’re down, they didn’t. There’s really not all that much difference either way.’ So says a man who has witnessed human nature from every angle.

Crews and Singleton organised a breakfast program for children in Redfern’s Aboriginal community:

Portrait of two men on Eveleigh Street Redfern, 2003 (Patricia Baillie, City of Sydney Archives)

 ‘the Block’, as it was known, had developed into something akin to a war zone. Expecting a hostile reception, at least to begin with, they wisely decided to swap Singleton’s Bentley for a ute when they visited the embattled area to begin negotiations with local community leaders. As they wandered around, their worst fears seemed about to come true. A hostile looking drunk staggered up to Singleton.

‘You’re John Singleton?’

‘Yeah, mate’

‘Your horse didn’t do too well on Saturday?’

From then on, Crews remembers, it was much like the Loaves and the Fishes, where the millionaire businessman showed a stunning ability to communicate on any level. ‘The next minute, honestly, there are half a dozen Aborigines with the arses out of their jeans, and they’re all of them sitting in the dirt with Singleton talking about horses. It was just amazing.’

They got their breakfast project off to a promising start, using a caravan painted in the red and green colours of the South Sydney football club to make it more acceptable to the Redfern kids. Eventually the program was handed over to a local church group.

  -Gerald Stone, American-Australian, 1933-2020