Michael Sharkey, from ‘Apollo in George Street’


Into Bohemia

WITHIN A YEAR of his arrival in Sydney, Wright was a prominent figure at Bohemian gatherings. At the inaugural Australian Writers’ and Artists’ Union (AWAU) meeting at the Burlington Cafe on Saturday 20 April 1911, he was one of nearly one hundred members present in the crowded upstairs room. Tom Mutch, Worker journalist since 1903, had been instrumental in setting up an organisation ‘sympathetic to industrial ideals and labour politics’.  Chaired by Norman Lilley, the AWAU ‘corroboree’ lasted for three hours, and Mick Paul was elected Secretary. The initial business concerned the establishment of the Union, and a reporter from Fairplay observed that ‘any stranger glancing into the room might have excused himself for thinking he’d bumped a meeting of the Y.M.C.A.’.  The ‘bourgeois stolidity’ of the initial meeting disappeared after the business part of the programme, and journalist Jimmy Ryan set about amusing the crowd, singing and reciting while acting as master of ceremonies. The entertainers Jandrevin and Larsen sang ‘sundry sea songs suitable for singing at smoke séances so near the shore’, and Bobby Watson provided his own version of the 1908 Cobb and Flynn hit ‘Yip-I-Addy-I-Ay!’ The event was a stag party, with the exception of Dulcie Deamer who, with her husband Albert Goldie, put on a thought-reading act.

Deamer, now 20 years of age, had published the first of many ‘Stone Age’ stories in the Lone Hand at the age of seventeen. She had appeared on stage and toured with the Charlie Taylor-Ella Carrington Dramatic Company in New Zealand, where she met Albert Goldie, publicity writer for the J.C. Williamson firm, before her eighteenth birthday. By 1911, the couple were desperately broke, and she was turning to journalism. ‘At that period’, she was later to write, ‘and for a run of following years, you could dash into the Bulletin with a poem, par., or an article on any day, and collect your few bob or a guinea. It was a life-saver. I’ve done it myself, and thanked heaven; though what I got went to the grocer and not to the publican’.  Deamer had met Rod Quinn and Henry Lawson (‘for the first and only time’), and like Wright, she began her Australian journalistic career on the Sun, reporting a boxing match. The Goldies stayed briefly in Sydney before departing for New York. Fourteen years later she would return, to become the ‘Queen of Bohemia’.

Wright and his freelance friends had little to lose in establishing a union to seek better conditions. Describing the ‘slaves of the Press’, the first official history of the Australian Journalists’ Association was to note that many experienced journalists before the AJA’s establishment earned as little as £3 a week, ‘and what a week!’ Hours were not regulated, and the work extended over seven days; it was not uncommon for journalists to work sixty to ninety hours. Regular staff had some assurance of a weekly wage, but unattached ‘penny-a-liners’ were badly treated.
If the AWAU lacked industrial muscle, the Australian Journalists’ Association, established in Melbourne in December 1910, was able to win an industrial agreement in December 1911, and with its expansion into New South Wales from Victoria, many members, including Wright and Paul, joined the more effective association. The AJA headquarters moved to Sydney in 1912, and Wright was one of the earliest members of the New South Wales branch. The AJA fought a bitter contest to hold newspapers to a 1911 draft log whereby senior journalists were paid six pounds ten for a 48 hour week: the Bulletin, Worker and Fairplay were among papers that adhered to AJA rates.

Wright’s social life in 1911 was closely tied to his professional activities. On 30 May 1911, three weeks after the AWAU meeting, Wright was a guest at the launch of Lilley’s Magazine at Aaron’s Exchange Hotel. Wright, Paul, artist-illustrators Sydney Ure Smith and Harry Julius, journalist Tom Mutch and a large contingent of poets, writers and black-and-white artists joined Hector Lamond and Claude Marquet of the Worker in wishing the new venture well. There were some interesting identities among the company: Leslie Holdsworth Allen, classical scholar (and from 1918 Professor of English at the Royal Military College, Duntroon), ‘Sydney Partridge’, novelist and poet (New Zealand-born, Kate Partridge married Sydney writer Hal Stone), and Lala Fisher.

Lala Fisher (Mary Lucy Richardson) was an outstanding editor, poet and Worker contributor.  After publishing her own poetry and editing a book of expatriate Australian writing in England, Fisher had worked for the radical Queensland paper New Eagle and Steele Rudd’s Magazine before moving to Sydney. There she joined the Theatre Magazine, which she bought in 1909. Dulcie Deamer, who met her about this time, considered her ‘truly unbelievable’. In Deamer’s later sketch of her character and activities, Fisher ‘had a plump, firm-chinned face, and fine violet-blue eyes. Eyes that swam with emotion, tender or furious’. Her ‘likes and dislikes were equally unbounded’. Her Sydney office was a rendez-vous of poets; according to Deamer, ‘Lawson used to cadge bobs there’. Careless of conventions, Fisher raised blushes when she spoke: one of her articles asked ‘Why Are Actors So Seldom Men?’ She despised Christianity, referring to Christ as ‘a poor little thing’. She could not abide the idea of suffering, and exercised a secular charity, picking up ‘impossible types’ off the streets and taking them home to be washed and fed. Deamer thought Fisher looked on life ‘with the gaze of an inspired and disgusted reforming prophet’. She was similarly unorthodox in her relationships, having ‘at some unspecified date in the past’ quitted her husband George Fisher, confiding to Deamer that the sight of his bare back while he was having a wash ‘invariably forced her to rush outside and be sick’. In spite of this handicap, she had borne him two sons, and then, ‘the miracle happened’. Lala Fisher met the love of her life, ‘Mr H’, when she surprised him in the act of kissing a chair on which she had been sitting. Her sons, whom she had also abandoned, later enlisted and, according to Deamer, were killed in the War. Lala gave up smoking and became a vegetarian ‘as a kind of “memorial” to them’. She became friendly with Wright, but ultimately considered her own great experience infinitely superior to that of Wright and Zora Cross: ‘They considered it “a great love-story”, did they?—It shouldn’t be mentioned in the same breath as her transcendental achievement’. 

Contributors to the first issue of Lilley’s Magazine represented a broad range of Sydney-based talent.  In the four issues that followed before the magazine folded in October 1911, Annette Paul contributed a story, Mary Gilmore and Lala Fisher were represented by poems, and artists included Sydney Ure Smith, Les Robinson and Claude Marquet. Mick Paul illustrated a verse of Wright’s, and Wright joined Mabel Forrest as a reviewer in the third issue. The magazine provided a showcase for members of the AWAU; a ‘Directory’ listed specialisations of the contributors, with contact addresses for freelance work. Wright was available for ‘Articles, political and descriptive, Australia, New Zealand’ and for ‘song words’. Pat O’Maori was separately listed for ‘Topical verse, paragraphs, variegated tripe’.  Wright’s contributions to Lilley’s Magazine included an appreciative review of (Helena) Sumner Locke’s Mum Dawson, Boss, a slight ‘Bride Song’ and a revised version of his poem ‘While the Billy Boils’, with the note that it was originally printed in the 1897 Station Ballads. 

Lilley’s enterprise failed for the reasons that small magazines generally collapse. The pool of potential readers was small, subscriptions were few, and the magazine was competing with more handsome local and imported periodicals distributed through commercial channels. Lilley’s Magazine served to unite a company of writers and artists in a manner that the clubs and other professional societies did not. Bohemian gatherings like the Dawn and Dusk Club (‘Duskers’) and the Supper Club of the turn of the century had given way to the B.Bs (Brother Brushes), Bread and Cheese and other loose federations of artists and writers, but there was a political undercurrent to the gatherings of Lilley’s contributors. Wright’s associates took their work seriously. Earlier Antipodean Bohemians might have been consciously enacting a romantic image of a cosmopolitan artistic milieu or reacting against bourgeois constraints, but Wright’s companions were conscious of themselves as members of a profession seeking wage justice and could put on sobriety as well as dissipation.

It was in this company that Wright met the woman he believed to be the love of his life. In 1911, the ‘great love story’ between Wright and Zora Cross to which Lala Fisher referred was still some years away, but the prelude to his first emotional revolution is hinted at in several poems between September and late October: ‘A Psalm of Life’, ‘You’, and ‘Margaret’.  The first describes a moment of bliss with an obliging ‘Cissy’ during an outing. The poem concludes with a pretty piece of paganism: ‘I wouldn’t exchange her smallest curl / For all that the saints hold better’. This exaggeration is eclipsed in ‘You’, where Wright announces ‘Twin souls at first—at last!’:

You came to me when all the world was grey;
We walked together in the sobbing night,
Hand clasped in hand, along the trodden way
Of the unheeding city. Then you found
A little room—all holy, warm and bright,
Full of heart’s trophies and the pleasant sound
Of home’s caressing music night and day.

The poem ends melodramatically: ‘White saint, forgive, my soul is seared with sin!’  In ‘Margaret’, Wright describes his aimless passage through the world, and blasphemously exaggerates his new-found state:

For her I hold the curtained dark apart,
As I would hang upon the knees of God,
And force his eyes to answer. Echoes start
From the astonished silence, and I fall,
Blinded, from ways no foot of man has trod.

In contrast to this confessional tone, ‘Twenty Years Ago’ contemplates a time when Wright was ‘uncursed’:

Beneath this bough, a hoary sinner,
My dreams were all of beer and dinner,
I saw a hat, and knew the feather,
And all the time when roses blow,
Came back from twenty years ago…

Then, as now, I seemed a-dreaming,
With that gold hair above me gleaming,
The bending bough, the amber weather,
The shady hat, the floating feather—
And each tall curse that Time can grow,
Sprang up from twenty years ago.

Wright could plainly mock the clichés of his own verse though aspects of his past were also seriously recalled; ‘Mates’, published in March 1911, concerned an occasion high above a river in Central Otago where Wright and a mate had fought each other.  Another way of coming at the past was in the reworking of history and legend, and about this time, Wright picked up his earlier Otago attempts, making reference to Eastern lore in ‘The Arab’ and ‘Aidenn’, and Scandinavian mythology in ‘The Laughter of Thor’ and ‘Viking Song’. Set to music by Mirrie Hill, the latter became a concert-piece during the Great War.

Another sort of historical reflection resulted in an unusual accolade. In ‘The Bottle’, a Bulletin leading article on 2 November, Wright canvassed recent events in British Liverpool, where the sale of bottled beer had been prohibited during a strike to prevent the use by street fighters of the ‘empty shells of departing gladness’ against the authorities. He developed the notion that the bottle symbolised British civilisation’s equivalent of Keats’ ‘Grecian Urn’ and stood for Britons as the red cap of revolution stood for France or the Cross for Rome.  J.F. Archibald, on reading the article, told Wright that he thought it ‘the finest ever written in Australia’, and presented him with a silver cigarette case inscribed ‘In Memoriam “The Bottle”’. Wright was not merely coming along in Sydney journalism; in the opinion of many, he was close to its peak.

from  Apollo in George Street: The Life of David Mckee Wright   by Michael Sharkey

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