Jack Marx

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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