BookReviews

Australian exotica

A rare glimpse into the daily routine of a bohemian from Down Under

Reviewed by Peter Coleman

Memoirs of a Young Bastard: The Diaries of Tim Burstall
by Tim Burstall
The Miegunyah Press
Melbourne, 2012

Larrikins: A History
by Melissa Bellanta
University of Queensland Press
St. Lucia, 2012 

There are two reasons why Memoirs of a Young Bastard: The Diaries of Tim Burstall is so compelling. The first is that it is one of the few detailed diaries of life in bohemia, not only in Australia but in the world. There are countless memoirs, operas, novels, songs, and paintings about bohemians—from Berlin, Bloomsbury, or Budapest to the Left Bank, Greenwich Village, or Shanghai. But daily-life diaries recording the routine of bohemian existence are rare.

The second reason is that, rare or not, there will be none at all in the future. Bohemia, as Burstall experienced it, has disappeared. Today the once struggling if not poverty stricken writers and artists have grants and fellowships, or lectureships or are writers-in-residence at various universities. We will still get novels like Frank Moorhouse’s Conference-ville, but no more Diaries of Tim Burstall. They give a valuable picture of a lost world.

There is a third reason that should be mentioned. Memoirs of a Young Bastard is the work of a true artist—candid, confessional and searching. The Young Bastard of the title is partly self-condemnatory but it also emphasises his parents’ decision to renounce their parenthood and have Burstall declared a ward of the court. Parents and son were never reconciled and the son was left to create his own artistic persona. The diaries tell that story, or part of it.

Tim Burstall became a published diarist by chance. He kept these records over several years in Melbourne in the 1950s basically as an aide-memoire for the grand novel, perhaps the legendary G.A.N. (Great Australian Novel) that he planned to write to make sense of his life and times. He never wrote this novel. His creativity went into the series of famous films he made, mainly in the 1970s (Stork, Alvin Purple, Kangaroo among others). He stopped keeping his diaries. It was some 40 years before he thought of publishing them, possibly with a view to royalties. The problem was to find a publisher and editor. Luckily he found both—Louise Adler and Hilary McPhee. They have produced a handsome volume, basically for the year 1954. The original diaries run to the end of 1956. The still unpublished years are in the Latrobe Library, Melbourne, and will be digitised for the general reader. There are no plans to publish them in book form, although there is talk, however vague, of making a film based on them.

The Memoirs stop well before Burstall made his first film but they still reveal the man who became the famous director. The style is realistic and the mood often pessimistic. The first entry (10 November 1953) begins: “Felt restless and lousy all day.” It ends with a gloomy discussion of life’s brevity. A friend asks: “How many weeks have you got, Tim? Two thousand weeks.” (This is the title of Burstall’s first major film made some 15 years later: 2000 Weeks.) The last entry describes a cheerless New Year’s Eve party and ends with the resigned words “Another year”.

In between, Burstall casts a cold eye over what he calls “a sexual madhouse” in which he was a prominent patient. The editor McPhee sums up sensibly: “There were women who were damaged and damaging, men who were shattered and insecure, others who were unscrupulous. There seems to have been remarkably little awareness or concern about the effect on children.”

The major difference with their freethinking and free-loving counterparts in Sydney at this time was political. The Melbourne bohemians of Burstall’s diaries were either communists or fellow-travellers. Sydney visitors, inoculated against Stalinism by Professor John Anderson, were so astonished by this Melbourne naivety that for the rest of their lives they could not take Melbourne intellectuals seriously. Yet there was no denying the vitality that nurtured such Melbourne spirits as Arthur Boyd, John Perceval, Barry Humphries, Germaine Greer, and a number of Wittgensteinian philosophers, not to mention Tim Burstall and his wife Betty.

 

ANOTHER strand of Australian life that has rejected convention and respectability has been the larrikin tradition as presented in Melissa Bellanta’s Larrikins: A History. One group of Sydney bohemians even called itself The Push in homage to the larrikin term for gang, although the bohemians had little or nothing in common with the lawless larrikins of days gone by except rejection of the values of the establishment. The Push’s 1950s contemporaries, the bodgies, had a better claim, especially in their lairy clothes, to reviving the larrikin tradition.

Bellanta sets out to trace the evolution of violent larrikinism from its emergence in the 1860s to its disappearance by the 1920s and the mysterious transformation of the word ‘larrikin’ to mean an admired happy-go-lucky non-conformist. They were originally an urban, not a rural or pastoral, phenomenon. But Bellanta does not trace their origins to the pre-industrial convict culture of early Australia, beyond a passing reference to the Cabbage Tree Mob of the 1840s and an occasional allusion to the criminal subcultures of London and Liverpool which produced so many of the convicts.

By the 1860s you would find the larrikins, as they were now called, in the city streets of Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane. They were roving boot-blacks, newsboys, pickpockets, costermongers, barrowmen, horse-minders, carters, busking acrobats, hawkers, and criers. Some older readers may still remember the lingering, suburban rabbito and bottle-o.

In Sydney they might take casual jobs in the Glebe Island abattoir and in Melbourne they found unskilled work in the boot factories. Some liked stoning Chinese or gang raping servant girls. A few were hanged for their crimes, most famously the Mt Rennie (that is, Moore Park) rapists. They relaxed in the saloons or billiard halls of Sydney’s Haymarket or Melbourne’s Little Lon (or Lonsdale Street) and at the fights. They were despised, not only by the middle class but also by the aspirational working class.

As a way of life larrikinism had faded away by the 1920s. Bellanta attributes this disappearance to the influence of prosperity, democracy and compulsory schooling. What puzzles her is how the word larrikin survived as a term of qualified approval. In Australia, you can still boast “I’m a bit of a larrikin” in a way no one in another country would boast “I’m a bit of a hoodlum”.

In Melbourne, the Sentimental Bloke found his Doreen and settled down. In Sydney, Lennie Lower celebrated the suburban larrikin in a series of popular novels such as Here’s Luck. Some larrikins were even knighted, like Sir Les Patterson. Bellanta thinks it tells us something important about Australians.