The seaside industrial city of Newcastle harbours a rich history of achievement born of rebellion. It was here that convict James Hardy Vaux began penning a lexicon of criminal language thought to be the first Australian dictionary produced, and where Joseph Lycett took a break from forging banknotes to design church windows before cutting his own throat to escape authorities.
It’s no wonder the historians at the University of Newcastle, who produced this collection of essays, were so keen to chronicle the city’s great unsung, and the title of their book certainly promises something special from the city whose rabid surf culture of the 1960s and 70s helped to rehabilitate the word “radical” as an acknowledgment of something outstanding.
But the problems with Radical Newcastle begin with the authors’ preferred definition of the word. The introduction points us to the Oxford English Dictionary: “advocating thorough or far-reaching political or social reform; revolutionary, especially left wing”.
The emphasis is mine, but the decision is theirs: nearly every chapter deals with matters of a communist or socialist bent, or with stories shoehorned into such a definition. ( Herald journalist Joanne McCarthy decides her chapter on child sexual abuse in the clergy deserves inclusion because it was “a radical step” for her paper to report on it, as if newspapers have traditionally drawn the line at exposing scandals.)
The authors have the right to set their own parameters, but it does raise the question as to why. For what reason did the history department of Newcastle University believe the story of the city, so tragically untold, could be resurrected by a book almost exclusively about socialism? It’s not as if Newcastle pinkos have had it so bad; the nation’s only dedicatedly Labor division since Federation, Newcastle is practically a socialist’s holiday resort, where to be politically conservative is to be radical in any common sense of the word.
As if this politically motivated culling of good history isn’t mean enough, the introduction warns us not to expect anything as spectacular as the lives of Vaux and Lycett, or the tale of post-earthquake corruption in 1989, or the Depression-era eviction riots, for to “focus on high-profile incidents may leave out the tireless activists who organised and campaigned without achieving public notice”.
In other words, the more noteworthy the story, the less likely it is to appear. Thus frontier scientists such as Henry Leighton Jones, arguably Australia’s first endocrinologist, who transplanted monkey testicles into human beings in his bushland laboratory in the 1930s, and mavericks such as Ben Lexcen, the abandoned and uneducated child who went on to win the America’s Cup with his radical marine architecture, are ignored specifically, it seems, because their stories are worth writing about.
What we get instead are the sapless lives of low-level political obsessives, the reader dunked into in a bath of acronyms as the lacklustre protagonists shuffle from one meeting to the next of the CPA, the TLC, the CMUC, the WIUA, ad nauseam. Two priests score a chapter each for the fact their socialist views “discomfited” their parishioners. We are invited to give a toss about the spectacularly dismal saga of the proposed closure of the Mayfield public swimming pool, written by a committee of no less than four authors, which predictably reads like a report commissioned by council.
One essay authored by two people lapses in and out of first person, and every second chapter reads like a school assignment, to wit: “This is a story of Newcastle Medical School through the critical gaze of radicalism. The aim is to explore … [then, seven dreary pages later] … This account of the first decade of Newcastle Medical School shows how radicalism flourished … ”
It’s as if someone grabbed a handful of term essays from a lecturer’s desk and published them sight unseen.
Lisa Milner’s chapter on “Newcastle’s Postwar Cultural Activists” promises some relief from the drudgery, but we get nothing about rock ’n’ roll, or art, or punk, all of which were strong countercultural forces in Newcastle. Instead, we learn that “the centre of cultural ac- Radical Newcastle Edited by James Bennett, Nancy Cushing and Erik Ekland NewSouth, 333pp, $39.99 tivity in Newcastle” was — you guessed it — the Trades Hall Council Workers Club, and we are frogmarched through the activities of the Communist Party-funded New Theatre.
About 20 plays are laboriously namechecked (“Out of Commission by Mona Brand, Childermass by Tom Keneally and The Legend of King O’Malley by Michael Boddy and Bob Ellis were other scripts selected”), but we learn nothing about the actual performances, the only witness account coming from a gushing ‘‘review’’ in the Newcastle Trades Hall Workers Club Journal.
This isn’t history. It’s more like record keep- Not-so-radical Novocastrians include, clockwise from above, Mal and Mike Leyland, winged keel designer Ben Lexcen, surfer Mark Richards and lord mayor Joy Cummings