Australian Notes

Australian notes

23 October 2014

2:00 PM

23 October 2014

2:00 PM

Among Gough Whitlam’s greatest moments were his acceptance both of his Dismissal in November 1975 and of his overwhelming rejection by the electorate in December. It took true stature.

So Sydney University has suspended its professor of poetry and banned him from the campus over offensive racist and sexist expressions in his private (allegedly hacked) emails. The university is meanwhile conducting an official investigation. Thomas Babington Macaulay made two observations that may help it in its deliberations. One is: ‘We know of no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodic fits of morality.’ The other: ‘Perhaps no person can be a poet or even enjoy poetry without a certain unsoundness of mind.’ Time the university recovered its sense of proportion.


It was a gay old night at Gleebooks last week as the old lefties gathered to celebrate the new book about them What Did You Do in the Cold War Daddy? Actually the book is not so much about the Cold War as about the Australian Communist party in the grand old days. Ann Curthoys and Joy Damousi had the bright idea of collecting the memories of twelve people mainly born in the 1940s who grew up in leftist or communist families. What do they think of it all now that the communist party has disappeared? Most of them have no regrets. They think of their families as social reformers in a hurry. They seem never to have heard of Orwell or Solzhenitsyn. The book records some tense moments. Lyndall Ryan recalls her family’s distress over the expulsion from the Communist party of her father Jack (‘Shanghai’) Ryan. Mark Aarons recalls climbing into the ceiling at the home of a Santamaria man to examine his extensive files. George Zangalis remembers a policeman calling him ‘a dago commo bastard.’ Patrick Stalin Brislan decided to change his name. But the audience at the launching looked back less in anger than in nostalgia. From the platform Peter Manning spoke good-humouredly of how easily he moved from his university DLP Club to the Left. Valerie Cooms spoke of the Aboriginal cause. Martin Krygier, an unreconstructed anti-communist, actually spoke of Stalinism and the gulag. His was a lone voice. (His family came from Poland.) Despite the laughter and gaiety it was a sad occasion. Bourbons of the Left, they have forgotten nothing and learned nothing.

Many ‘working journalists’ (as distinct presumably from all the loafers) may approach the newly published A Companion to the Australian Media with suspicion. Its editorial board of thirteen is overwhelmingly – and inevitably – academic. So are its 300 contributors. Journos and scholars – hacks and pedants – normally belong to opposed secret societies. But the editor of the Companion – Bridget Griffen-Foley of Macquarie University – has succeeded in yoking them together (all unpaid) to produce what she correctly calls ‘a resource-rich, user-friendly work of reference.’ The range of the 479 entries in her ‘Leviathan’ is not limited to the news pages of newspapers. Anything related to ‘the media’ is grist to Griffen-Foley’s mill – from astrologers and disc jockeys to traffic reporters. The Companion records all sorts of ‘fascinating details’. It was, for example, a humble Letter to the Sydney Morning Herald in 1885 that sent us to war in Sudan to revenge the clubbing to death by Islamist fanatics of General Gordon in Khartoum. The letter, by Sir Edward Strickland, appeared in February and a few weeks later 758 Empire-minded young adventurers of the NSW Contingent disembarked in Suakin in the Red Sea. In the entry on the Packer family we are told that Clyde Packer ‘was not allowed’ to go to university, presumably because his spectacularly successful father Frank Packer, who did not sit for the school Intermediate Certificate, saw little point and perhaps some harm in a university education – although it does not appear to have hobbled Rupert Murdoch. As well as the great dynasties and the media they created, the Companion notes many of the smaller fly-by-night affairs. The Abo Call of 1938 written and edited by the semi-fascist P.R. Stephensen denounced the celebration of Australia Day. The anti-British and pro-Aborigine Stephensen campaigned to have it declared a Day of Mourning – a campaign which continues to this day. In the entry on Gay and Lesbian Media we learn of the Sydney Fart. The entry on the Salvation Army’s film department formed in 1892 honours The Inauguration of the Commonwealth, Australia’s first feature-length film (over 30 minutes). But let’s not forget the entry on cartoonists. Their 1924 annual ball became such a riotous bacchanal that police were called to get the sick and wounded to hospital. Sydney Council said never again and banned cartoonists from its premises; with public calls to ban them everywhere!

I dropped in the other day on the exhibition ‘Menzies 1939-1941’ in Old Parliament House, Canberra. Curated by John Howard, it is an excellent show covering Menzies’ first term as PM and including memorabilia, newspapers, correspondence, cartoons, photographs and films of an extraordinary period. The exhibition inevitably concentrates on the War – including Menzies’ visit to Britain during the Blitz to urge greater British concentration on the Pacific. It also includes his mordant assessment of Churchill’s War Cabinet (‘deplorable dumb men’ in fear of Churchill.) It ends, a few months before Pearl Harbour, with his resignation in August 1941. A fascinating story. A curious thing is that when I visited the exhibition I was the only one there.

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