From Here’s Luck (1930)

‘It is absolutely ridiculous to call a man of forty-eight old,’ declares Jack Gudgeon at the beginning of Lennie Lower‘s comic novel Here’s Luck. Abandoned by his wife Agatha – her sister Gertrude has called him a ‘dipsomaniac’ – he bravely tries to fend for himself. Agatha has gone to her mother’s in Chatswood:

Chatswood is one of those places that are a stone’s throw from some other place, and is mainly given over to the earnestly genteel. Here, respectability stalks abroad adorned with starched linen and surrounded by mortgages. The clatter of lawn-mowers can be heard for miles on any sunny Saturday. Sunday evenings, the stillness of death descends on the place, but if one listens very attentively one may hear the scraping of hundreds of chewed pens as they travel the weary road of principal and interest and pay-off-as-rent.

Agatha’s mother’s home tucked its lawns about its feet and withdrew somewhat from the regular line of houses in the street. It had been paid for. My mother-in-law’s chief occupations were writing letters of complaint to the municipal council, and calling upon God to look at our so-called democratic government and blight it. She also laid a few baits for the neighbours’ dogs, kept a strict eye on the morals of the whole street, and lopped off any branch, twig or tendril which thrust itself from the next-door garden over the fence and so trespassed on her property. What spare time she had left was used up by various communings with God about the water-rates, and the only really light work she indulged in was when she seated herself behind the window-curtain and watched for small boys who might be tempted to rattle sticks along the front fence. Altogether, she was a busy woman…In this description of my mother-in-law’s mode of life I think I have written with a certain amount of tolerant restraint. She is an old lady and the age of chivalry is not dead while a Gudgeon lives. Perhaps a different son-in-law might have described her as a senseless, whining, nagging, leather-faced old whitlow not fit to cohabit with a rhinoceros beetle. But I wouldn’t.

–Lennie Lower, Australian, 1903-1947

McLeod and Smith, 2nd Chatswood Scout Hall, opening, 1929 (Willoughby City Library)

McLeod and Smith, 2nd Chatswood Scout Hall, opening, 1929
(Willoughby City Library)

From Flying Visits (1984)

In 1976 Clive James returned to Australia for the first time since going to England in 1962. From Sydney he wrote what would be the first of his series of ‘postcards’ for The Observer:

Ockerism’s most famous incarnation is Paul Hogan, a stand-up comic who rivals even Dennis Lillee as an advertiser’s idea of irresistible consumer-bait.

I went to the St George Leagues Club to catch Hogan’s act. The Leagues Club, which has doubled in size since my time, more than lived up to its reputation as the biggest thing of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere – although it is difficult to think of any other place in the Southern Hemisphere which might conceivably want to emulate it. Built as a reinforced concrete hymn to the St George Rugby League team (they won the championship for eleven years straight from 1956-66 and there was a time when I could recite the names of the whole side, including the reserves), the place has 40,000 members and looks like an aquarium full of slot machines. Kitsch portraits of front-row forwards with necks wider than their heads are spot-lit in the stairwells. Yet as a believer in art deriving its power from a primitive impulse, I expected to find Hogan vulgar but hoped he would be inventive.

Alas, he was trouncingly boring, with no idea of how to work his material. His earthiness was sheer hard-hat invective. His best line was reminiscence. Like Barry Humphries’ character Sandy Stone, Hogan went in search of time past. He was quite good on, if inadvisedly proud of, the awfulness of the Australian male’s sexual education, which has been such bad news for the men of my generation and even worse news for the women.

He recalled accurately how you bought your best girl scorched almonds at the pictures but fobbed off your second best with conversation lollies (they were shapes of toothbreaking candy with messages in pink ink). Unfortunately he lacked the discrimination necessary to organise such resonant subject-matter. The linguistic fastidiousness of Humphries he just couldn’t match. Hardly any Australian can match it, since it is linked to the consciously European richness of Humphries’ personal culture. Humphries’ internationalism, unlike George Lazenby‘s, is not an ad-man’s shibboleth but a condition of mind. The force of intellect Humphries brings to the seemingly worthless minutiae of everyday Australian life depends on his studious immersion in European culture and his readiness to measure his work by its standards.

–Clive James, Australian, b. 1939

St George Leagues

St George Leagues Club – Sep 1965. (Australian Heritage Photographic Library)

From Redback (1986)

Karl Leon Forelock, native of Partington, Manchester (the wettest spot in Europe) comes to Australia in the early 1960s after graduating with a double-starred first in the Moral Decencies from Malapert College, Cambridge. (His creator, Howard Jacobson, was also a Mancunian Cambridge graduate who came to Australia in the 1960s.) Leon’s job is to teach Australians how to live, and this includes writing for the CIA-funded Black Sail. He is soon living in a ménage a trois with a pair of synchronised swimmers. He also catches up with his father, who ran away to Australia with his lover Trilby a decade before. They have made a fortune running a chain of upmarket fashion boutiques and are now living in Vaucluse:

‘Let me show you something,’ he said, leading me up marble steps to the highest point of what Trilby called the property, a tiny turreted folly which Trilby called her belvedere. ‘Look around you. See all those boats in the marinas, see all those fine houses and gardens, see those tennis courts, those swimming pools, those Roman verandas, those garages big enough to hold five cars – how many do you think are owned by Europeans who came here so recently they are still struggling with the language?’

…‘I suppose lots,’ I said.

‘You suppose right. Lots. And do you know what happens to a suburb like this when Boris Rubaschkin or Galina Vishnevskaya comes to sing at the Sydney Town Hall?’

I was astonished that my father had heard of such people let alone was capable of pronouncing their names. Then I remembered the opera-scarf he had worn, even for breakfast, during his last days in Partington. It was the opera scarf that had finally turned Hester and Nesta against him.

‘Well I suppose it empties,’ I guessed.

‘It empties for the night of the concert. But what does it do for a fortnight afterwards?’

He had me there. But I gave it a go. ‘It sings Russian songs?’

My father still had hold of my wrist and he tightened his grip on it. ‘It throbs, Leon. Living in the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney for a month after a recital of songs from the old country is like living inside a giant cello. There are some streets in which you can feel the pavement vibrating with the emotion beneath you. This is a sentimental country. Everybody is a long way from home. There are pools winners here, Leon, lottery winners, refugees, runaways, people who have come thirteen thousand miles bent double in the boot of a motor car with their fortunes hidden in protective wrappings in their small intestine. They have risked everything to get here. This is the fulfilment of their dreams’ – I could tell he was speaking from the heart – ‘and still they cry. Sometimes I’ve stood on this very spot, here, where you and I are standing now, and I’ve heard the sobs of grown men and women from as far away as Perth and Adelaide. The whole country shakes nightly; but in Vaucluse, after a recital of folk-songs in the Sydney Town Hall, feeling is so strong it registers on a seismograph.’

I stood by his side and listened with him to the night. I tried to hear beyond the merely haphazard noises of the harbour, the clinking of the boats, the lapping of the water, the irritable coughing of the mermaids. And at last, even though there hadn’t been a recital from a Russian baritone for months, I made out the low moaning threnody of fourteen million souls in exile.

‘So don’t ask me,’ my father concluded, ‘if I’m homesick.’

–Howard Jacobson, English, b. 1942

Sydney Town Hall Organ (City of Sydney Archives)

Sydney Town Hall Organ (City of Sydney Archives)