I really like the cover of this memoir: it shows David Perry’s portrait of a debonair Richard Appleton (1932-2005), sitting elegantly in an armchair with his dandified cigar, his aloof eyebrow and his carefully casual shock of hair on one side of the body – while he’s sporting a bloodied hand and eye on the other. I like its ambiguity: it could be referring to Reds on the Left, or to the pub punch-up in which Appleton severed some tendons on broken glass…but if it is, the blood’s on the wrong hand. (p104)
Appo, Recollections of a Member of the Sydney Push is Appleton’s memoir of his life amid the group which went by the strange name of the Sydney Push. What was it? Since I was still a child in its heyday, I had to investigate via Wikipedia before I started reading. There I learned that the Push was a predominantly left-wing sub-culture in Sydney from the 1940s to the 1970s. It starred such luminaries as Germaine Greer, Clive James, Eva Cox , Robert Hughes, Frank Moorhouse, Les Murray, John Olsen and Paddy McGuinness.
(This was a surprise. Paddy McGuinness a member of a left wing sub-culture? Is this the same McGuinness who wrote in The Australian until recently? ? There can’t possibly be two of them, but PM was, for all the years I was aware of his existence, a thorn in the side of anyone to the left of Genghis Khan. I gave up reading him years ago because (like most of the The Usual Suspects in the daily press) he was so predictable I could have written his articles myself. However did this Left/Right metamorphosis occur??)
I was more than two thirds of the way through this book before I realised I actually owned a book by Appleton. It’s The Cambridge Dictionary of Australian Places, one of those reference books on my shelf that I get down from time to time but had never noticed its author. It’s a gazetteer listing cities and suburbs and intriguing little places you’ve never heard of, with brief and sometimes earthy entries about all sorts of things from the origin of the place name to its Aboriginal history. It’s got maps too, which were done by Appleton’s third wife Barbara, and I now realise that I could have checked out their abode when I was in Cessnock last summer! Appleton was also the Editor-in-Chief of The Australian Encyclopedia but I don’t feel at all embarrassed about not knowing that. I don’t know who the Editor-in-Chief of the Britannica is either, although I’ve got a complete set (thanks to a cull in my local library, where for $40.00 I bought two sets of the entire 1994 edition, one for me and one for school.)
I’ll cheerfully admit that I’d never heard of most of the people mentioned in this book. I don’t know whether this is because my awareness of Australian contemporary poets is scanty, because the Push was a local Sydney phenomenon, or because the dramatis personae were merely legends in their own lunchtimes. Among those who really were notable (at least to people like me) were Clive James and Germaine Greer (who was born in Melbourne, not Sydney, and got her undergraduate degree here). These two shot through to the UK, became famous for being public intellectuals and haven’t come back except on flying visits where they manage to irritate nearly everybody, as expats routinely do. Robert Hughes went to the US and became famous for being an art critic. (He doesn’t want to come back since having a rather unedifying episode in the courts after a car accident in Broome). Eva Cox was a Big Deal in the Women’s Electoral Lobby, and Les Murray writes poetry which John Howard liked. (Or said he did. I can’t really imagine Howard reading anything except cricket scores and treasury budget forecasts but you never know, I suppose. ) Frank Moorhouse is a notable writer and won the Miles Franklin for Dark Palace in 2000, so he’s my favourite out of this lot, though I do like John Olsen’s paintings and wish I had enough money to buy one. I hadn’t heard of any of the rest of them, so I shall spare you the list.
Whether they grew up to be significant and influential people or not, they seem to have indulged themselves in their youth. It might just be Appleton’s rather adolescent attitude towards heavy drinking, but writing this memoir in his dotage he seems keen to give the impression that their lives revolved around boozing. Students or not (Appleton dropped out) they hung out at the pubs surrounding Sydney Uni, but since in those days pubs closed at 6:00pm, they moved operations after dark to cheap restaurants and noisy parties. Handicapped by the fact that they were radicals who disapproved of anything remotely organised, (including elections and democracy), they seem to have been paralysed into inaction, though they managed to get to the odd demo against the Vietnam War, the Springbok Rugby Tour and Sharpeville. (But didn’t everyone with a social conscience?)
Were Push members on ASIO’s visiting list? Given the paranoia about Communism they probably were. They were snooty about The Establishment but they also thought that revolutions were a waste of time. It’s not quite clear to me from what Appleton writes about the different kinds of Communism whether he eventually rejected it or the local Communists rejected him, but I didn’t find that part very interesting anyway. I don’t think that Appleton paints a very clear picture of what was meant by Push libertarianism apart from scorning the conservatism of the day, theorising about permanent revolution and enjoying sexual liberation. (However since reliable contraception was not available in Australia till the early 1960s, for most of the Push’s history sexual liberation was a risky proposition for women, and probably not quite so much fun).
(By comparison, the Left in Melbourne were almost staid. Most of them (as Barry Jones says in the blurb) were active in the Fabian Society, a progressive policy think tank based on the British Fabians and established in Australian in 1947. Australian Fabianism is characterised by longevity and by its influence on Australian domestic politics. Famous Fabians include Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke, and Paul Keating, and State Premiers Don Dunstan, Neville Wran and John Cain. )
Whatever, Wikipedia tells us that the evolution of youth culture in the 1970s meant that Push libertarianism became irrelevant. Quoting Alan Barcan, the article says that in “advocating free love and opposition to authority, the Push and the Libertarians anticipated the new post-1968 morality. But the adoption of many of their ideas by society undermined their raison d’être”.  How tiresome it must have been to have the masses adopt their views!
The blurb on the back quotes Barry Jones as saying this is a ‘provoking’ memoir, and I certainly agree. By the end of Chapter 4 I was tired of Appleton’s world-weary cynicism and his too-deliberate flippancy and I was none too impressed by his writing style. Whatever does it mean when he writes: ‘Omnipresent at the Lincoln, when he was present there at all, was Harry Hooten’? (p39)
And the poetry he quotes? I like Ovid, Milton, John Donne, and T S Eliot, old ballads and a bit of war poetry if I’m feeling sentimental on ANZAC Day, so I’m in no position to judge contemporary poetry, but I’m really not much impressed.
Epitaph for Tania, by Lex Banning
Who was not altogether
unlike the Duchess of Malfi
she had a quality of beauty.
Lament for her;
Time used her poorly.
Speak truly of her;
she was not wholly honest.
Be glad for her;
she died young.
Is that good poetry? If it is, does that excuse the last lines, when the girl in question committed suicide??
On the other hand, some parts were really interesting. I found Appleton’s adventures as an itinerant worker extraordinary – when he ran out of money for idling away his days in the pub with the Push, he seems to have set off out into the bush to earn a bit of money. He hitchhiked all over the eastern states in search of work – from Far North Queensland to Melbourne and back again picking up jobs as an unskilled labourer. Appleton’s poverty-stricken search for work reminds me of Murray Bail’s marvellous book about Ian Fairweather, that wonderfully talented artist who could not support himself as a painter and was reduced to taking on horrible menial tasks to buy the materials he needed. Although Appleton’s plight was possibly self-inflicted (his flippancy makes it hard to tell) he was often hungry, homeless, cold, dirty and shabbily dressed, doing menial and badly paid work on sugar cane farms and sheep stations, trying everything from harvesting peanuts to grading wheat seeds, with stints at fencing, rabbiting, and fettling – but he writes about all this not with self-pity but with entertaining humour.
It’s even more extraordinary that when Appleton got his girlfriend pregnant her parents wanted her to marry him. A son-in-law less suitable to fit into middle-class Melbourne life would be hard to find, but to give him his due he made an effort and even completed teacher-training and got a real job for a while. Quite why the marriage took place when Marion had decided to adopt out the child as soon as it was born isn’t clear, and Appleton seems to have no feelings about this relinquished child, which is rather sad. He’s also disconcertingly philosophical about being estranged from his children by his second marriage…
Sometimes his flippancy goes too far. After he abandoned the first marriage, he went to Sydney with a woman called Jan Millar. She was killed, tragically, at Circular Quay when she went to farewell Paddy McGuiness on his trip to England.
Those waving farewell were crowded onto a platform perched high above the concrete pier to which the ship was moored. A ‘safety fence’ was there to keep them in check, but Jan, characteristically enthusiastic and probably drunk , thrust herself too far forward. She fell – and crushed her skull. (p117)
Now, I object to this. ‘Probably drunk’ means that Appleton doesn’t really know for certain whether she was or she wasn’t, and didn’t bother to find out. So why write it? Why besmirch a memory in this way when it might not even be true? He’s not above slagging off about his second wife either, and may well have been a bit of a misogynist.
I wasn’t very interested in the stuff about Labor Party factions, but was most intrigued by Appleton’s adventures with emerging computer technology. At the beginning of his time at Angus and Robertson things were much as they had been for decades:
an editorial office strung with clothes lines on which were pegged, in alphabetical order, the printer’s galley proofs of the encyclopedia, each about one-and-a-quarter metres in length and printed on cheap paper. These were used, in those pre-computer days when linotype and monotype printing were the norm, for publishers to check the typesetter’s accuracy. Through that flammable forest of paper fronds the editorial staff went about their day-to-day and year-to-year compilation of the encyclopedia. (p194)
Writing about publishing in transition from typesetting to computers Appleton reminds us that such transitions were more complex than they now seem. Early software was not WYSIWYG, and this was especially tricky if publishing something in columns, as encyclopedias are. For the third edition of The Australian Encyclopedia, to work out where words could be hyphenated, he had to read the entire MS – all 2,400,000 words of it - marking syllables where hyphenation was permissable. For the fourth edition, he had to fight hard to have an index included in the fourth edition (how bizarre is that??) but software could not sort articles alphabetically. Metrication meant that Appleton had to convert all the distances in the encyclopedia by hand without a calculator too. This is the stuff I found really interesting, and I wish there were more of it and less of the inane anecdotes about drinking.
I wonder who the market for this book is. Will it be stocked throughout Australia? It’s available at Gleebooks in Sydney but not at Readings in Melbourne, which could mean that Melbourne isn’t interested. You can also get it from Sydney University Press.
Author: Richard Appleton
Title: Appo, Recollections of a Member of the Sydney Push
Publisher: Darlington Press, an imprint of Sydney University Press. 2009
Source: Review copy, Sydney University Press.