History lost in a dull red blur
Newcastle ing, a catalogue of dates, people and places bound together with the romance of a street directory. It is no book for a reader, or a history junkie, or a lover of Newcastle, or even the most passionate socialist.
One of the better chapters, Shane Hopkinson and Tom Griffiths’s essay about activist Neville Cunningham, betrays a story laced with tragedy: the man who sacrificed his marriage and whole working life to communism concludes, at the end of his life, that his cause has been a lie. But the heartbreak is lost in a barely eulogistic biography, authored by men who appear to have known Cunningham personally.
It’s symbolic of this book’s bloodless approach to history that we never seem to learn of how characters we are meant to care about ended their lives: publisher JJ Moloney “died suddenly in Sydney”, academic David Maddison faced a “tragically premature death in 1981”. Readers are left to guess whether their ends came through heart attack, suicide or meteor strike.
The biggest disappointment of all is Bernadette Smith’s chapter on the Star Hotel riot of 1979, described in the introduction as “a compellingly captured … eyewitness account”. It is nothing of the sort, the author admitting in her essay that she missed the riot completely, showing up only to photograph the “last remnants of the crowd of onlookers and the scattered wreckage” of a violence that had long since punched itself out.
It would have taken little more than a shoutout on social media to find some genuine witnesses and participants who could have told this remarkable story blow by blow. Instead, Smith contents herself with writing a scholarly treatise on the brawl, as seen through the rear-view mirror of an earnest academic breaking the speed limit on her way to a PhD. A big fight in a pub, initiated when the cops turned off the beer, becomes “a struggle for the acceptance of pluralism”. Give me a break.
There’s a reason why Ned Kelly is Australia’s most popular historical figure, and it’s not because he attended committee meetings. A breath of fresh air among the gallery of public servants who jostle for space in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, Ned was a lone wolf, waging an entirely freelance rebellion against personal poverty and the hypnotic tedium of life under authority, political or otherwise, which is something every Australian can understand.
So, too, were the residents of Clara Street, Newcastle, who physically charged police in defence of their homes during the eviction riot of 1932, and “serial pest” Peter Hore, whose reckless moments of cultural terrorism have made him world-famous. Mark Richards dropped out of high school — with his parents’ blessing — to surf his way to a world title in 1979, when surfing was such a marginal sport that a wristwatch was his only prize, and the Leyland brothers took on Get Smart and The Brady Bunch with little more than a Kombi, urging Australians to love their natural inheritance at a time when mindless journeys were anathema to television.
None of these Novocastrians gets a guernsey in Radical Newcastle — not even Joy Cummings, who waded headlong into a political gender tsunami to become Australia’s first female lord mayor in 1974 — and that’s bewildering. The authors doubtless feel that in producing a book about politicised nobodies written in the most spartan academic style, they offer us something worthy that transcends the cheap appetites of sensationalist culture.
They’re wrong. What we have here is trash, frankly, which will live next to clip jobs of Kim Kardashian in bargain bins across the country. That’s a tragedy for the unpublished history of Newcastle, for it’ll be a brave publisher who’ll be prepared to touch the subject when the sales of this tome are docketed.
If you think I’m being unfair, think about what this book represents. Radical Newcastle is the work of almost the entire history department of one of our leading universities, edited by the head of that department, a senior lecturer thereof and an “award-winning” alumnus, with graduates making up more than three quarters of the list of contributors. These are people who educate our history students. They set the benchmark when it comes to the study and proliferation of the story of Australia, and are approached by politicians to carve out the syllabus for generations of suffering children, who stagger home from school anxiously wondering what’s wrong with them that they can’t get interested in the gold rush or Federation.
Radical Newcastle may be the best evidence yet for what is wrong with how history is approached in Australia, not to mention education in a higher learning facility. That these well-paid intellectuals have put their heads together and produced a history book so deliberately drab and politically exclusive should be cause for a royal commission, not just a lousy review in a national newspaper.
is a Newcastle-born journalist and
Detail from the cover of Radical Newcastle shows a strike at Newcastle Teachers College in 1951