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Emerald City’s immortal subversives

6 June 2010 1,238 views No Comment

RADICAL Sydney is primarily about remembering and restoring some of the most radical and unruly elements to the history of Australia’s largest and most demographically diverse city.

As the introduction to this superbly illustrated book explains, it discovers “the street corners where they spoke, their union offices and lecture halls, the pubs and cafes in which they socialised”, and so much more.

A pivotal chapter concerns Australia’s famous short-story writer and poet Henry Lawson (1867-1922) and his mother, Louisa Lawson, one of this nation’s most important feminist authors and longstanding editor of that edgy journal for Australian women, The Dawn.

It is crucial to understand that alcoholism, depression and debt plagued Henry Lawson’s life and, as a direct result, this led in 1903 to the breakdown of his seven-year marriage to Bertha, a nurse, and stepdaughter of Sydney’s radical bookshop owner William McNamara, who is featured in a lively and illuminating chapter by one of seven contributors to this book, Bruce Scates.

Louisa Lawson died in Sydney’s Gladesville Mental Hospital in August 1920, two years before her deeply troubled son. Many of our most talented writers and intellectuals were plagued by mental instability, including that world-renowned archeologist, historian and labour activist Vere Gordon Childe who, after being hounded out of Australia by conservative forces, returned to Sydney in 1957.

Soon after, he committed suicide, on October 19 that year, by jumping off the edge of a cliff in the Blue Mountains. As the fine chapter on Childe concludes, his friend, the leader of the federal Labor Party, H.V. (Bert) Evatt, “spoke at a service for him at the church in North Sydney where Childe’s father had been the rector”. The authors rightly insist that it is worth remembering that, during World War I, many professors in Australia “worked for military intelligence as censors”. But they could not effectively move against Childe until he publicly associated himself with “the radicals” by delivering an anti-war paper at a peace conference in Sydney.

Many chapters in this excellent book are subtly interconnected. Thus contributions range from documenting the struggles for defending free speech at a number of stumps throughout Sydney in 1915, to the role at that time of the local branch of the incendiary Industrial Workers of the World, to the foundation by a number of activists impressed by the 1917 Russian Revolution of the Australian Communist Party in Sydney in October 1920, and to the role in the 1950s of fiery poet, playwright and activist Dorothy Hewett and the so-called Redfern Reds.

This chapter features a photograph of the fiery Hewett’s house in Marriott Street, Redfern, in which she squatted and organised clandestine communist activities in the community and in the local sewing mills, and another of the community Billiards Parlour at 103 Regent Street in 1940, which became the Communist Party’s Henry Lawson Hall.

It is worth remembering that the statue on a grassy Domain knoll overlooking Woolloomooloo Bay in tribute to Henry Lawson was unveiled in 1931 by NSW governor Philip Game, who sacked Labor’s maverick premier Jack Lang who in latter years was to be such an influence on flamboyant prime minister Paul Keating.

In a powerful symmetry, one of the book’s final chapters deals with Survival Day, January 26, 1984, and Koori Redfern. The telling text is underlined by a black-and-white photograph of the former Empress Hotel in Regent Street, Redfern, a site that featured significantly in the world of Sydney’s Black Power militants in the 1970s and that was renamed the Regent Hotel.

Radical Sydney does not shy away from the offensive attitudes of many early Australian radicals and of their journals of opinion, including The Worker and especially The Bulletin, which in 1888 proclaimed: “No nigger, no Chinaman, no lascar, no kanaka, no purveyor of cheap coloured labour is an Australian.” Such poisonous and persistent racism led to the labour movement in particular insisting, in the year of Federation, 1901, that the nation should be, and should remain, a white Australia.

Terry Irving and Rowan Cahill’s Radical Sydney is so much more interesting, revealing and crisply written than Jeff and Jill Sparrow’s Radical Melbourne (2001) and Raymond Evans and Carole Ferrier’s Radical Brisbane (2004). Indeed, it is a most enjoyable and illuminating history.

Terry Irving & Rowan Cahill, Radical Sydney:Portraits and Unruly Episodes, UNSW Press, 384pp, $39.95.

The Weekend Australian, June 5-6, 2010