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Type
Essay
Category
Culture

Bias Australian?

In the previous edition of Overland, Jim Davidson traced the personal and political path of the magazine’s founder and first editor, Stephen Murray-Smith, and examined its supporters’ faith in literature raising the political consciousness of the workers. This was based, to an extent, on the identification by radical nationalists of a democratic Australian tradition fashioned by the hardships and struggles of convicts and bush workers, and extending to the urban proletariat who would lead the revolution. The belief led to the conflicts Davidson traces between those who adhered to a ‘temper democratic’ (as the communists understood themselves) and those who adhered to a ‘bias Australian’.

Murray-Smith had taken the motto for the new journal from Joseph Furphy’s description of his novel Such Is Life: ‘temper democratic; bias, offensively Australian’. Furphy had intended this as a declaration that his novel had nothing in common with what he regarded as effete and gentlemanly writers like Henry Kingsley, who wrote of Australia from an English viewpoint and presented English gentlemen as the heroes of colonial settlement. By omitting ‘offensively’, Murray-Smith signalled that the magazine would not pursue an aggressive nationalism, but otherwise the motto suggested that Overland would seek writers who, like Furphy, used Australian vernacular to describe the lives of working men.

This was compatible with the cultural policies of the Communist Party, which believed that Australia needed to break from the imperialist powers of Britain and America, and to build on its own egalitarian and democratic tradition. The policy came ultimately from Moscow, by way of the Cominform with which Murray-Smith had been indirectly associated when he was employed by Telepress, the Czech government news agency.

As Davidson shows, such beliefs led first to a struggle between those who valued the local over the international, and then to a struggle over the Stalinist betrayals that the party hardliners and apparatchiks refused to acknowledge. I wish to trace the way that, as Overland became more critical of the Soviet Union, its radical Australian nationalism also changed. I emphasise that there was never any formal editorial discussion of these broad issues. Rather, a theoretical stance emerged through policies enunciated in response to such events as the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and through an unspoken consensus.

The early editions of Overland were content with work that was distinctively Australian in language and place. This seemed an urgent task at a time when there was little formal study of Australian literature, and Australian writing and history were largely absent from schools beyond the primary level. The working-class spirit was evoked through writers such as John Morrison, and through the bush tradition represented by Edward Harrington, ‘last of the balladists’. His three poems in the third issue celebrate wartime mateship and the bush yarn, but also present a weariness with life that suggests mateship is not enough, that it is constantly betrayed.

I rode too far in the morning light: I should have returned at noon,
But how did I know the storm would come or the darkness fall so soon.
Oh, for the voice of the beggar now … there is no star nor moon!

The magazine maintained the same democratic spirit by its frequent publication of reportage by ordinary people on their everyday conditions. In Overland 13, ‘Harney’s War’, based on John Thompson’s interview with Bill Harney, updates this tradition, as Harney uses radio to look back to the First World War.

Harney’s recollections omit most of the actual fighting, concentrating rather on the horrors of being buried alive, on the fear and the weariness, on the total confusion of the battles. He tells of how the Australians distrusted their officers and developed advanced skills in scrounging. This solidarity among the men led Harney to a contempt for the elites who sent him and his comrades to fight, and eventually to a rejection of all war.

Just as the Communist Party was one of the first Australian political organisations to champion Aboriginal rights, so Overland was one of the first periodicals to pay attention to Indigenous Australia. Yet the underlying principle of this position was solidarity with the oppressed rather than recognition of diverse cultures. The article ‘The North-West: Background to a Book’ by Donald McLeod, who helped establish one of the first Aboriginal-run mining and agricultural cooperatives, is one of the few pieces from the time to propose an alternative to the government’s assimilationist policies. Otherwise, articles like Noel Counihan’s fine tribute to Albert Namatjira called for Indigenous people to be given the opportunity to learn from the Western tradition rather than to make their own distinctive contribution.

A few female writers broadened the magazine’s scope. June Factor took readers into the Jewish community to show old customs persisting in a new land; Kay Brown portrayed a strong Aboriginal woman surviving in an indifferent or hostile township until her isolation is broken by two boys who take an interest in her. The story is realistic until its somewhat clichéd ending, where the protagonist is accepted by her neighbours just at the moment she is removed from them.

The stories from this period show both the strengths and the weaknesses of the realist approach. The straightforward prose is sufficiently elastic to include Yiddish idioms or bush vernacular, and the writers’ stance as plain recorders of the truth enables their work to deal with almost any human situation. The typical story focuses on a person or group of people, sets the scene and identifies a conflict. The method is basically metonymic, placing the individual in a situation symptomatic of the wider society.

In the hands of writers like John Morrison or Alan Marshall, the method produced some powerful fiction. But reading a great number of these Overland stories in succession induces a feeling of sameness – despite the fact that, as I know from experience, the published stories stood out from the constant flow that landed on the editor’s desk. In mass, they tend to what Patrick White called ‘dreary, dun-coloured offspring of journalistic realism’, even though at the time they seemed to build on the few writers, such as Vance Palmer, Kylie Tennant, Miles Franklin or Katharine Susannah Prichard, building on the pioneering work of Lawson and Furphy. We felt we were extending and broadening a radical tradition that, for the general reader, had been reduced to the ‘outbackery’ of Frank Clune and Ion Idriess.

Then came Patrick White. The challenge his work posed to Overland’s sense of Australia was to replace metonymy with metaphor. While Kay Brown’s Mrs Rigby might be an interesting character, she has none of the complex symbolism of Theodora Goodman, Johann Ulrich Voss, Mrs Godbold, Himmelfarb, Miss Hare or any of the other characters populating White’s Australia. Ian Turner, in his review of Voss in edition 12, understood that White was calling on a different dimension of experience. He acknowledges that the novel is about ‘man aspiring to be God … the stuff of tragedy.’ Yet Turner’s response is ultimately to reassert the realist position. He complains that, as a character, Voss is, in fact, not the stuff of tragedy, for he’s not driven by pride and will, but is merely incompetent in his choice of men, and in his planning and management of the expedition. Apart from Voss and Laura, Turner argues, the novel has no fully realised characters – and none of the ‘natural drama, the morality play,’ in which Australians are accustomed to recognise themselves. Turner contrasts Voss with Lawson’s settler and Furphy’s Rory O’Halloran, both of whose tragedies could have been our own. Australian tragedies, he argues, ‘have been forced on us by our surroundings, rather than our natures’.

This is the full development of the materialist position but it fails to recognise that White is concerned with something entirely different. In its early pages, Voss contains ample social portrayal of the empty society the protagonist wants to escape. It includes the highly competent Mr Judd, who would have made, in conventional terms, a far more satisfactory leader than Voss, and, at Rhine Towers, a picture of the rural utopia that the early settlers hoped to establish. It also gives a compelling account of the material obstacles that confront the expedition.

But White is seeking something different from earlier writers. In mythical terms, the land both destroys and transfigures Voss. Whether the mystical aspects of this ending, or of the portrayal of Indigenous Australians, succeed is for the reader to decide – the point is that the success must be measured by a different standard from the one Turner applies.

Overland’s most decisive break with its past loyalties came with Dorothy Hewett’s 1967 poem ‘The Hidden Journey’, published in edition 36. Hewett had previously published stirring ballads of rebellion, like ‘Atomic Lullaby’ and ‘Ballad of Poor Tom Wolfe’.

Who will open the door, unlatch the gate,
Say ‘Where are you going, Tom Wolfe, so late?
Have you come to bring America joy,
In your seven-league boots, you roaring boy?

‘The Hidden Journey’ is utterly different, in style as well as content. It opens with a declarative not celebratory mood, using an approximation of traditional iambic pentameters and eschewing rhyme.

In 1952, in the year of Stalin, I came to Russia,
And saw the flowers growing out of the blinkers in my eyes,
Saw the statues in the squares with their heads blown off,

The stumps of their thick stone necks stuffed with roses.

Despite the apparently detached mood, this is not simple poetry of observation, let alone of exhortation. Some images are contradictory, impossible to pin down. Flowers growing out of blinkers? Others, like the roses replacing the heads on the statues, are clear, but leave the reader wondering how to respond. We do not know if we have come to see a death or a birth, whether the image of flowers growing from the broken statues is a vision of the future or a repressed thought from the past. But, as the images run on, they build a realistic picture of a deeply divided society, one in which a few are privileged and the majority suffer desperately:

Saw a man who sat on a step in a Siberian village,
Naked to the waist in the sleet, head buried in his hands,
Saw a woman with savage eyes who sat beside him,
One arm flung over his body to shield him from cold.
Was he drunk or mad or in prison, his naked flesh
Blue-veined like breakable china left out in the rain?

These lines show more than a change of politics, with Right and Left shifting places in a constant frame. The intimacy of the savage-eyed woman and the delicacy of the blue-veined china image go beyond politics to the concerns that give rise to them. The speaker acknowledges her earlier blindness, which had prevented her admitting these glimpses of misery, and sent her ‘back to mouth my commonplaces on street corners’.

Her past solidarity survives in her recognition that ‘We are all guilty, ignorance was as inexcusable / As the blissful cataracts that closed on our white eyes.’ The contrast of this image of disease with the previous images of oppression makes the Left complicit in the rotten structure that produces the misery it denies.

Yet as the poem progresses, it is the poets and artists – from Babel and Mayakovsky and Singer and Eisenstein to Daniel and Sinyavsky – who find the truth even at the cost of their lives. Singer declares, ‘there is nothing, nothing at all behind those monstrous roses … Isaac Babel, come in!’ Babel is a witness not only to the horrors inflicted on the Russian people, but also to the truth embodied in the people themselves, a truth that tyranny cannot destroy.

Writing ‘The Hidden Journey’ extricated Hewett from the populism of her earlier work, and freed her for the strong feminist poetry she wrote in her ‘Alice’ poems. Her poems in Overland mirror the magazine’s evolution from a simple democratic realism that showed life as it was experienced, to writing that, through the symbolic imagination, integrated the inner or personal with the outer or social being. At the same time, Overland’s Australian content developed from plain representation of the place to a more sardonic and critical attitude to its pretensions.

The magazine continued to oppose conscription and the conflict in Vietnam, publishing lists of draft-resisters and devoting a complete issue to poetry of the war. Though writers like David Martin contributed regular political commentary, Overland’s contents became much more literary, historical and cultural, with Peter Mathers’ anarchic fantasy and Gerald Murnane’s involuted dreaming finding a place. Both start with what might appear realism, but Mathers quickly takes us into a mad socio-political maze of power and corruption that seems equally indebted to Lewis Carroll and Franz Kafka, while Murnane’s narrator, a Victorian public servant, retreats into fantasies of Matthew Arnold and the Scholar Gipsy.

The challenge to Australia’s radicals during these years came from the election and final dismissal of the Whitlam government, yet this went almost unnoticed in the magazine. Perhaps the newly won scepticism about the nation extended even to a government that, in its ambitions at least, represented our ideals. Both Murray-Smith and I published ungenerous comments on the Literature Board of the Australia Council, the development of an arts bureaucracy and its centralisation in Sydney.

The clearest response to the government’s defeat came from David Martin, who reflects on maintaining hope in reason when trust in democracy has been destroyed. He finds democratic leadership in Australia lacking the decisive qualities needed to deal with the crises confronting it, but cannot accept the kind of dictatorial alternatives on offer, including those of the ALP’s Socialist Left (led by Bill Hartley).

We can see the way Overland evolved under Murray-Smith’s editorship if we examine the thirtieth-anniversary issue. Physically, the magazine had moved beyond the newspaper style of its first issues: issue number 96, from September 1984, is printed on fine paper, smartly designed by Vane Lindesay and illustrated by Rick Amor, both long-time supporters. The editor’s ‘Swag’ begins with surprise that the magazine had continued so long, expressing gratitude to the readers and contributors who had supported it through the years, and recalling some of its more notable contributions.

The lead feature is an example of reportage that goes beyond observation to express the spirit of its time. In ‘February 16th, Ash Wednesday’, Rick Hosking tells of fighting bush fires in South Australia. While strictly factual, the piece is written with all the qualities of fiction, and shows the continuation in a multicultural society of the traditions of mateship and collective action in the face of calamity.

Elsewhere, the Australian theme is continued, with Thomas Keneally contributing an entertaining and perceptive memoir of boyhood; John Morrison paying tribute to his great friend Alan Marshall, whose last interview is also published; and Graham Rowlands discussing John Manifold’s poetry. The national is placed in a wider perspective by an article discussing Michael Wilding in the context of both Australian heritage and postmodernism. The overall tone is one of an interest in things Australian, rather than their promotion.

The magazine’s openness to more critical commentary on Australia had been demonstrated in 1982–83 in articles by Stephen Alomes in issue 90 and Graeme Turner in 91. Alomes looks at official attempts to instil a form of ‘video patriotism’ among Australians, such as the Advance Australia campaign and the bicentenary celebrations. This new form, he argues, is displacing both the older style of imperial patriotism, with its emphasis on king and empire, and the radical nationalism that had arisen after the Second World War. It speaks to an age when citizens are defined as consumers rather than producers.

Graeme Turner takes a similar stance towards contemporary Australian films, basing his analysis on work by Raymond Williams and Tim Rowse, and showing how myths of identity are created and appropriated. In Australia, he argues, the radical legends formed in the rural societies of the 1890s have proved remarkably persistent, serving as myths through which Australians continue to understand themselves in the urban present. What is important is not the historical accuracy of any particular representation, but the fact that these are myths we choose to endorse.

A different approach appeared in ‘An Australian Image of the Queen: A Semantic Approach to a Theory of Australian Culture’ in issue 89, probably the most theoretically radical article to appear in the magazine until this time. In it, John Fiske and Brian Copping take apart a cover of the Australian Women’s Weekly featuring pictures of the Queen and Princess Diana to show the deferential attitude to royalty, and how the apparent endorsement of popular values serves to endorse an elitist hierarchy. Then, in a daring move, they analyse how this general ideology has a distinctive Australian modulation, with Diana representing the vigorous new culture bidding to eclipse the imperialist old, in a local valuation ultimately absorbed by the dominant ideology, which it then leaves intact. The article is intellectually challenging, but its implied audience is academic rather than ordinary Australians (like the mythical ‘matron in Broome’ that Murray-Smith envisaged as Overland’s ideal reader).

Articles in later issues continued the questioning of patriotic imagery. Stephen Alomes saw nationalist advertising as partial, as omitting unpalatable truths, and as ultimately working to ‘strengthen the grip of business ideology and to encourage uncritical acceptance of social exploitation and injustice.’ DR Burns examines Australian social commentary to find that the cringe had been replaced by a disaffection that he terms ‘Austrophobia’. In an essay on Michael Wilding, Hans Hauge quotes HP Heseltine, observing that the Australian literary imagination has been modernist in its concern with the terror at the base of our being. Graeme Turner examines the dominant myths of the tradition, and concludes that they provide an insight that is more than empirical, and continue to fit Australians’ way of seeing their country. Sean Regan argues that Australia’s nationalism has been aborted by its refusal to accept its independence, and has remained colonial in its mentality. In a wide ranging reflection on the 1988 bicentenary projects, Ken Inglis pays particular attention to the acceptance of Aboriginal experience and traditions into Australian history and culture. He relates this to both multiculturalism and the opposition it has roused among those who cling to British origins.

The last issue edited by Murray-Smith exposes some of the contradictory ways that an understanding of the Australian tradition and its relationship to democracy had developed in Overland. A theoretical article by John Herouvim challenges the whole basis of Overland’s democratic commitment. Herouvim, who was soon afterward bought down by depression and despair, was just establishing himself as a public intellectual and comic. In this essay, in the form of a review of books by Verity Burgmann and David McKnight, he dismisses the ALP as a vehicle for any form of socialism – it has become ‘a mental condom on the penis of socialist strategy’. The contemporary ills he mentions are depressingly familiar – budget cuts, privatisation, deregulation. A mentality of national crisis, he argues, has taken from people any belief that a better society is possible. The task of the Left is to mobilise those he identifies as the Civilised to reject public lies and to spell out an alternative. This, he argues, can be grounded in the Australian Legend, which for all its weaknesses offers ‘to wean Australians away from the big lies of the new hegemony’.

Two other contributions endorse the populism that had always been at the heart of this tradition. Don Watson and Ross Fitzgerald both spoke at the launch of The Greatest Game. Watson contrasted the event with another launch he had attended in Footscray, where the great Ted Whitten glared at the assorted academics, newshounds, publishers and jackals who had invaded the bulldogs’ nest. He finishes by declaring Martin Flanagan the only writer who is so good that he could nearly describe a heartbeat: ‘And that, if you want to touch the essence of football, is what you have to do.’

Fitzgerald, one of the book’s editors, begins his response with a story of how ‘Soapy’ Vallence (or was it Bob Chitty?) bit Ron Todd’s balls, and how Chitty’s angry widow told him the story was all lies.

Both speakers in effect combine Overland’s favoured style of reportage with popular anecdote, and both celebrate how sport can unite the tribal and the universal, melding individual artistry with the collective ethos of the team. Yet this restatement of Australian populism is preceded by a laudatory review of Patrick White’s latest work and a statement by White himself, in which he declares his faith, not in God, but in a Presence that ‘to a certain degree, controls us’, a sober faith in ‘a Presence ignored, cursed, derided or intermittently worshipped by the human race’.

The juxtaposition of White and Watson gives us Overland’s Australian, slouching through his tribes, who belongs to the universal, even if his trust is in his mates rather than an unseen presence. If we look at the names of the contributors, he is probably white and male.

This easy image of the Australian is both the strength and the weakness of Overland’s nationalism. On the one hand, it captured, with its solidarity and tolerance, the best of the radical tradition. On the other hand, while it accepted White’s admission of the human capability for evil, it saw this evil as produced by the social, not the personal. It attacked the tyranny and aggression of the Soviet Union but did not attempt to locate these flaws in the project of communism itself.

Just as there was no systematic criticism of the Soviet Union, so was there little attempt to examine the by no means inconsiderable achievements of the welfare state and social democracy, or of the changes being wrought in the nature of corporate capitalism. Its nationalism ceased to be assertive, and turned instead to a portrayal of the diverse nature of modern Australia. The magazine was content with a national sentiment that offered no alternative to globalism, with a non-doctrinaire liberal humanism that provided no theoretical base to confront the neoliberalism emerging from the United States.

In this failure, Overland remained at the centre of the broad Left.

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John McLaren started writing for Overland in 1957. He is the author of three books on education and eight on literature. His most recent publication is Melbourne: City of Words.

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