1977 and All That

The year begins with Tiny Tim and I wasn’t expecting that. It’s no longer 2023, I’ve fallen into 1977 and I hadn’t meant to. I was finally reading The Saviours by Patrick O’Brien and wondered what Quadrant made of this “intellectual history of the left in Australia” when it was published. The magazine’s huge archives, freely accessible to all subscribers, holds PDF copies of the journal from 1956 to the present. The issues aren’t searchable online.

I start with January 1977 and come face to screen with Tiny Tim, a startling pop art portrait for “The Real Tiny Tim: Fake or Genius?” Huge portrait of a white face, golden flowing hair, Luna Park lips with billboard teeth—pop art by Martin Sharp, so the word Eternity in cursive script flows across the bottom of the image. The article, naturally by Sharp, is encyclopaedic, enthusiastic: “I see Tiny Tim as a human lyrebird.” The editor, Peter Coleman, may have been going through a Martin Sharp phase because the following month the cover was a photo of the artist standing in front of a Sydney institution—his article that month is “The World as Luna Park”.

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In the beginning Quadrant was an elegant quarterly, but in 1977 it was a brightly jacketed monthly. The founding editor, James McAuley, had died only the previous October (Mao had died the month before) and Peter Coleman had taken over. The covers were attention-seeking, making sure they were seen on newsagents’ shelves. Internally the pages were heavily illustrated with black and white photos, artworks, cartoons. The magazine’s connection with Sharp is a reminder that when he had been sentenced to a jail term at the Oz obscenity trial in 1964, McAuley had appeared as a witness for the defence during the appeal hearing. He called Oz magazine a “meritorious specimen of its kind”.

Reading old copies of Quadrant I keep being distracted by the lively and unexpected. Marion Halligan was unimpressed by the new food writers of the time like Sam Orr (Richard Beckett) at Nation Review: “Orr’s articles always end up being about how revoltingly drunk he got and how he and his friends and acquaintances shouted rude things at each other—always the same rude things—and fondled somebody’s tits and were asked to leave.”

In the same January issue there is a long article by the Liberal politician W.C. Wentworth, “Zero Population Growth: How It Is to Be Done”. For a poem to follow this, Coleman chose “Letter to a Dead Father” by Robert Clark. The placing of poems and articles in Quadrant is often worth noting.

In the beginning one of McAuley’s aims for Quadrant was “To publish work of interest and merit on any topic without regard to the affiliations or repute of the author, the sole requirement being that the material should be worth reading.”

February saw the publication of Luu Tuong Quang’s review of Giai Phong! The Fall and Liberation of Saigon (1976) by the Italian journalist Tiziano Terzani. Was this the first time in Australia that a Vietnamese refugee was given the opportunity to review a book on the invasion of his country by the communists? Luu Tuong Quang is remarkably cool in his treatment. The Italian tourist saw liberators; the refugee remembered the invaders with their “T54 Russian-made tanks roaring out the new order”. There is sadness: “Tiziano Terzani’s description of Saigon in agony is vivid, and as my eyes run through the pages of his book, reminiscent.” His memories are bitter: “Deserted streets were dotted with small groups of people watching in bewilderment the pale and bewildered young faces from Hanoi in tanks and on Molotova trucks coming, as they were told, to liberate Saigon which was henceforth renamed Hochiminhgrad.” The final sentence of the review is absolutely accurate: “Finally, it is pointless to question the author’s objectivity. He has disclaimed it.” What the author himself had written was, “I make no claim to be objective.”

Luu Tuong Quang arrived in Australia in May 1975 when Vietnamese refugees were viewed with disdain by the Left. The ex-diplomat would become Head of SBS Radio from 1989 to 2006.

The April cover was particularly hideous. It was a genuine photo of Mr (sic) Les Patterson holding a copy of The Wit of Whitlam in full colour and thus Quadrant introduced Les Patterson to its readers. Inside was a very unexpurgated version of his “Historic Address to the British—For the First Time the Complete Text!” Historians may remember that his appointment as Cultural Attaché to the Court of St James was made by Whitlam himself (and may have influenced the events of November 11):

You can have a 16 cubic foot fridge and all you gotta do is to front up in your penguin gear on the first nights of the Australian Dried Fruit Ballet Awards and at the Pom previews of some of our internationally-acclaimed award-winning home-grown nostalgia movies. It’ll be a bloody breeze, Les.

The Cultural Attaché related, in language which would have the thought police buzzing, his ideas for bringing culture to the British:

First, I thought we could stick on a abbo show … But you just have to look at your papers to see that London’s choc-a-block with abbo entertainment (he consults theatre guide). Let’s see, there’s the Black Theatre of Brixton, Ipi Tombi, the Zulu Dance Troupe, the Black Theatre of Prague, Othello up at Stratford and some show called the “Browning Version”.

First up, I thought about a ballet, but let’s face it, who goes to see a lot of poofters jumping around on the stage? The answer is a simple one: a lot of other poofters. No offence, Sir Robert.

This was immediately followed with an essay by Raymond Aron: “Solzhenitsyn on Sartre”.

Several issues later a letter from an angry Queensland reader (or was it Mr Humphries himself?) referred to “that tedious female impersonator” and expressed reservations about Quadrant’s decision to publish the historic document: “I never thought these ‘new standards’ could conceivably embrace such a nauseatingly piece of cretinous ocker vulgarity as ‘Les Patterson’.” It was “a scurrilous scandalous publication, fit only to be burnt by the common hangman”. In 2019 the Barry Award at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival was renamed because of trans-realistic comments Humphries made. Drag queen Dolly Diamond supported the censorship: “It was time … when you’re becoming far more known as a transphobic than a comedian, you’ve got to go.” Perhaps the funniest comment ever made by anyone connected with a Comedy Festival.

The tribute edition to McAuley in March used his 1944 portrait by Albert Tucker on the cover and reprinted an article by him, “My New Guinea”. It includes a reference to the “great enterprise of European colonialism” and a pertinent reflection on women and colonialism—apply these thoughts to our history story for a brand new narrative:

Very often I have been invaded by a feeling of the sterility of our contact with New Guinea. So much courage and admirable work shown in the pacification of the country, so much good work put into basic administration, so much effort expended on social and economic improvement, and yet nothing seems to take deep root, and nothing flowers.

And then sometimes I wonder whether the explanation is not really much simpler than I had thought. The great enterprise of European colonialism, which now turns out to have been fairly short-lived for most of the world, bred rejection in the hearts of its subjects, in spite of so much of incomparable value that it brought. Why? Perhaps the simple answer is: the white woman. While European men went out to Asia and Africa and the Pacific without wife and family, they entered into a different sort of relationship, socially and sexually, with the people. When the white wife came out all was inevitably different. It is not the woman’s fault if her urge to create and defend a home, and bring up children by the standards of her own community, made her wish to draw a circle of exclusion round her domain … No, the white woman is perhaps the real ruin of empires. If New Guinea had become a mulatto society it would be a slatternly, but more colourful and easy-going society, with the minor vices of concubinage and sloth, rather than the major respectable vices of cold-heartedness and hypocrisy.

Amongst the praise and memories of McAuley in that issue was a poem by the poet and always controversial biographer Charles Higham called “Fifties: McAuley”. The first two stanzas set the Sydney scene:

In an acrid December,
With cockroaches on pavements,
Palm leaves like rusted knives,
And moon and sun together,
I met you at Imogene Whyse’s.

She was in violet,
Drifting chiffon or silk—
Poets, as though in Chelsea
Read poems to chiming teacups;

I noticed a crooked curtain.

Higham’s In and Out of Hollywood: A Biographer’s Memoir (2009) explains what now seems obscure. Imogene Whyse ran the Sydney Poetry Society, which the young English immigrant had joined:

I read my poems aloud to the group, catching the eye, one memorable evening, of the distinguished Roman Catholic poet James McAuley. Gaunt and severe as a monk painted by Zurbaran or El Greco, he was at heart warm and kind.

McAuley published Higham’s poems in Quadrant and mentioned him to Sydney Morning Herald editor John Douglas Pringle, who offered the chance of book reviewing and escape from hated work for a Sydney stationery supplier. Higham made the most of his opportunities and later was working for the Bulletin as entertainment and literary editor when the “congenial” Peter Coleman became editor and suggested to Sir Frank Packer that Higham be sent to Hollywood to report for the magazine.

Throughout 1977 Quadrant published poems, stories, articles and cartoons. There were familiar names, including some of today’s contributors: Nicholas Hasluck, W.D. Rubinstein and the prolific Patrick Morgan, Bruce Beresford, Andrew Lansdown, Simon Leys, Robert Conquest, Irving Kristol, Hal Porter, Barbara Blackman (with illustrations by Charles Blackman), Clement Semmler, Robert Dessaix, Thelma Forshaw, David Stove, Hal Colebatch. Even music by Peter Sculthorpe.

In each monthly edition Barry Humphries supplied “Pseuds’ Corner: Incorporating ‘Leftie Lunacies’, ‘Balmain Baloney’, ‘Fascist Follies’, ‘Socialist Solecisms’ and ‘Arty Obfuscations’. Culled monthly from the archives of Mr Barry Humphries.” The short texts he published hardly seem dated:

You can glimpse this [artist Francis Yin’s view of sensuality] in his colored drawings. Here flamboyance starts to give away to wit. Little baskets of penises are presented, like small toadstools on a kind of breakfast table still-life. The brush drawings are between $190 and $220, the colored drawings $110 each. — Peter Ward, The Australian

There seems to me to be no valid intellectual reason why we should not have more courses in this University which are sympathetic—but analytically and critically sympathetic—to the views of Marx and other great radical thinkers; and I think that the University should accept more readily than it does courses relevant to present social concerns. The risk that some radical teachers might discriminate against some conservative students is a real one. But it is a risk that should be taken. — Bernard Smith, The University of Sydney News

George Molnar’s “Cedric—The Connoisseur” series were full-page contributions by the finest cartoonist of the period. They are still a pleasure. The ineffectual, snobbish, superior Cedric is a perfect Whitlam-era academic. Looked at now they explain why the feminists had such an easy time steamrollering their path through the 1980s universities. Cedric the academic was born to submit.

Hidden in these Quadrants is gold for researchers. In June the historian Geoffrey Fairbairn provided first-hand evidence of Australia’s history of secrets:

I remember a late afternoon at The Mitre Hotel in Melbourne not long after World War II when I was delicately asked not to join the Communist Party in order that I might serve the cause better in “other ways”—it seems reasonable to suppose that others accepted, and that by now “agents of influence” recruited at that time are in high positions in this country.

Is this the only time an incident like this has been made public?

During the year the magazine published chapters from Christopher Koch’s forthcoming novel The Year of Living Dangerously, and also text from Peter Kocan’s memoir The Wire and the Wall—publicised on the August cover as “The Night I Shot Arthur Calwell”:

For over three years my fantasy and anguish had been building towards this terrible “solution”. I had never once considered what would happen to me afterwards. I was blinded by the potent vision of my life ending in a welter of violence, with the shocked eyes of the entire nation riveted for a brief moment on me alone. Now, at Mosman Town Hall, with the goal almost within reach, I could not bear the thought of giving up and returning to the misery of my past life, a misery which would be increased tenfold by the knowledge of having failed in the only endeavour which could provide me with my moment of “glory” and oblivion.

The story Kocan tells could be that of any of the young male killers in the United States today—his story is completely contemporary. In 1966, when Kocan fired on Calwell, young intellectuals had their heads filled with Camus, The Outsider and absurdity—they probably hardly noticed the real thing in their midst. The nineteen-year-old who fired at Calwell was right, the shooting did make him famous. I know who Peter Kocan is but can’t quite remember who Phillip Adams is (or was?). Kocan’s contemporaries read Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti (who stood on my hand at a Sydney reading, and apologised) and did not become poets; Kocan read Rupert Brooke and became a poet.

At the far end of the same issue of the magazine Peter Coleman placed a short story by Thelma Forshaw (a neglected writer) called “Death of a Bastard”. The young narrator’s despised and feared father dies on Anzac Day. She describes herself as “a weedy twelve-year-old militarist”.

Though I finally found only a brief mention of the book I had travelled to 1977 looking for, I discovered something else. Across the years from 1956 to 1977 to 2023 Quadrant possesses the enthusiasm McAuley etched into his very first edition: “In spite of all that can be said against our age, what a moment it is to be alive in! What an epoch for a magazine to emerge in!” And how necessary to continue the combat he commenced.

One thought on “1977 and All That

  • Geoff Sherrington says:

    Memories. Martin Sharp and I crossed paths now and then at St Paul’s College, Sydney Uni, 1961. My lasting memory is his attack on the shiny new grey Triumph Herald that has Dad gave him, removing the hard top with cold chisel and saw to better fill with drunken mates. That was a time in which to be alive, before the Long March was felt. Geoff S

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