May 2005

The Nation Reviewed

From nation to now

By Mungo MacCallum
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

When a new Australian magazine invites me to reminisce about old Australian magazines I have worked for, it has either a lot of courage or a shocking grasp of my history. True, I have written for so many weeklies, fortnightlies, monthlies and quarterlies over the years that an envious colleague once commented I had more columns than the Parthenon. But that’s the good news. The bad news is they are all ex-magazines. I qualify as a serial killer.

Prominent among the corpses are Oz magazine, Richard Walsh, Richard Neville and Martin Sharp’s post-undergraduate effort – actually not all that post – and Nation Review. In the years since and in-between have come tumbling a clatter of offspring: Living Daylights (Neville’s attempt at hippiedom in which he wrote under the pseudonym Harry Gumboot); The National Times (political scandal meets lifestyle – both lose – under the upwardly mobile Max Suich); Australian Left Review (populists trying to be academic); Australian Society (academics trying to be popular); Matilda (satire and scatology inside some deceptively picturesque covers); The Independent Monthly (Suich returns, this time downwardly mobile); The Republican (the best thing about which was Louisa, mother of Henry, Lawson’s old title); The Unicorn (local plagiarism, with the owner absconding just in time); and The Eye (biting and funny but hopelessly over-designed). 

Some were so fleeting that their names are forgotten. Others were actually aborted; after receiving my contributions the editors failed to publish at all. The only truly long-term survivors have been the university papers, with their built-in subsidies and captive audiences, and The Bulletin, which has constantly remade itself since the days of founding editor J. F. Archibald. If a year is a long time in politics, then ten years is a lifetime for an Australian political magazine.

One groundbreaking magazine – or “independent journal of opinion”, as it styled itself – actually lasted 14 years. Nation, published every fortnight from 1958 to 1972, was founded by Tom Fitzgerald. Undernourished by his day job as The Sydney Morning Herald’s brilliant financial editor, Fitzgerald bankrolled Nation by mortgaging the family home and taking out a #5000 loan. Filing cabinets were constructed from fruit boxes. My father, who wrote about TV, books and much else for Nation, described the upstairs office at 777B George Street, Sydney, as “a room above an illegal abortionist in a grimy building near Railway Square”. Once, when Nation extracted a chapter of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, federal security officers scoured the printery in search of the incendiary pages. They were hidden, its Adelaide correspondent Ken Inglis recalls, in a toilet cistern.

Fitzgerald’s chief collaborators were the drama critic Harry Kippax, with whom he conspired over coffee cups full of illegal claret at the Kings Cross hangout Vadim’s, and more importantly George Munster, an enthusiast whose extraordinary ability as a researcher never quite compensated for the turgidity of his prose. The Fitzgerald-Munster partnership began one night at Lorenzini’s, an Elizabeth Street wine and coffee bar, when the young Barry Humphries said to Fitzgerald: “I want you to meet a friend of mine who’s a genius.” Nation was always worthy and often provocative but stayed firmly on the genteel side of outrageous, and eventually ran out of puff. Its marriage to the unkempt Sunday Review in 1972 was always going to be fraught.

Nation Review, otherwise known as ‘The Ferret’, existed on the faith, hope and especially charity of the transport millionaire Gordon Barton. Barton was an idealistic soul who genuinely thought that people of good intentions could make a difference. He was the founder of the Australia Party, a haven for Liberal supporters who opposed the Vietnam War, and he believed in capitalism with a human, indeed angelic, face. His confidence, while naive, had a sublime quality; when a critic reminded him that the party was unlikely to survive without some kind of socio-economic base, Barton replied: “I am its socio-economic base.”

Who knows what he felt about ‘The Ferret’? It was intended as a spin-off from the Australia Party, a sort of intellectual magnet for people interested in serious discussion of social and political reform. It became a larrikin and scurrilous vehicle for iconoclasm under Walsh’s editorship, so far to the left of its proprietor that it looked like something from another planet. It was loosely based around a small group of established writers who had little in common except Olympian standards of alcohol consumption and a desire to see how far they could push journalism’s boundaries. John Hepworth, Richard Beckett (alias Sam Orr) and myself were permanent staff; Bob Ellis was a frequent contributor. Joining us were a handful of younger and lesser-known cartoonists – Peter Nicholson, Patrick Cook, Victoria Roberts, Ross Bateup and the incomparable Michael Leunig – whose whimsical humanism leavened the often brutal prose of the writers. The rest of the pages were filled with endless green tirades and articles from such unlikely sources as Frank Knopfelmacher, the surly anti-communist academic. Nobody knew what would be in the paper until it came out which, miraculously enough, until 1981, it invariably did.

Working from Canberra I was shielded from much of the weekly chaos, but on my occasional trips to Melbourne and later Sydney I would stumble through a minefield of empty bottles and a haze of marijuana fumes to find Walsh, apparently unconcerned, concocting fictitious by-lines for exposés submitted by disgruntled reporters who couldn’t get them published by their regular employers. These were a fecund source of early copy but less so as the establishment press dragged itself into the modern era, something for which Nation Review can take some credit.

Walsh could be spectacularly miserly; once, after inviting me to lunch, he insisted on dividing a $7.30 bill. Even so, Nation Review lost money in eight of its nine years. Munster, as co-editor, brought gravitas but also conflict. Some of us felt his approach was too serious amid the underlying unruliness. When Walsh left the building to become a distant publisher, the rows got more frequent and Munster more incomprehensible. Even in moments of clarity he was something of a liability; an editorial proclaiming that Gough Whitlam was unfit to be prime minister provoked fury and disbelief from loyal readers. Eventually the mild-mannered Peter Manning took over as sole editor, producing new tensions between Manning, a born-again feminist, and the less reverent males on staff. When Manning took a week off and Beckett produced an earthy splash on contemporary courtship – including phrases such as “getting into her naughty bits” and “sinking the sausage” – Manning attempted to sack him. The other old-timers were outraged. Something close to civil war broke out. The day of ‘The Ferret’ had passed.

The National Times, under Suich, tried to balance investigative journalism with reviews of expensive wine. It was finally killed off in 1986. The largely satirical Matilda sank that same year under a bundle of libel actions. Its editor, Robbie Swan, was better known as a crusader for erotica, and some felt his habit of welcoming prospective advertisers in his alter ego of Caroline Cumming-Sweetly was counterproductive. In 1989 Suich got another chance with The Independent Monthly, which went from a newspaper to a magazine and was supported by a truly odd couple of tycoons in James Fairfax and John Singleton. Seven years later, none of them profitable, it was gone too.

Magazines are creatures of their times. Fashions change and backers either go broke or find new hobbies on which to lose their money. Even the best and most tenacious tend to wither and die. But it is hard to believe there is not the market for a smart, uninhibited publication that defies the current convention and tells it like it is – or at least like it could be. In these bleak times there is certainly the need. I only hope I haven’t already strangled it at birth.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum was a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Much of his work can be found here: The View from Billinudgel.

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