Monday musings on Australian literature: Arnold Haskell on the Arts (2)

Arnold Haskell, Waltzing MatildaBack in November, I wrote a post on the Arts chapter in dance critic Arnold Haskell’s book Waltzing Matilda and focused on theatre and literature. In this post, I’ll look at his discussion of the press.

“compares … favourably”

Haskell starts by saying that Australia’s press started in a “thoroughly unprincipled and worthless manner”, though he doesn’t explain what he means by this. However, by the time he is writing, he says it “compares, as a whole, favourably with the English and American”, adding that its style is “English and not American”. He describes the press’s treatment of “the abdication” (Edward VIII) and “the September crisis” as “dignified and free from deliberately fostered sensation”.

There were, he admitted, sensational papers, such as Truth and Smith’s Weekly, which “at first glance are not a good advertisement for Australia”. At times their humour is raw and undergraduate, but he comes to admire their humour, even when they targeted him. He praises their writers as “excellent”, and writes:

These papers greatly upset me at first, but I can now appreciate their value as an antidote to wowsing. For all their presentation and methods they are usually on the side of the angels.

Wow, no faint praise here – and rather a long way from today’s “fake news”! Anyhow, he shows himself to be an open-minded traveller.

And then, of course, there’s “Grannie” or The Sydney Morning Herald, which he describes as “the dean of papers” and

the organ of conservative views and amazing respectability. Its very make-up clears it of any suspicion of frivolity. It is a power in the land and it knows it.

Next he discusses the Sydney Daily Telegraph suggesting it might become a rival. It’s owned he writes

by a young man, Frank Packer, a colossus with the figure of a prize-fighter and the flair to do great things. It is brilliant, erratic, out for scoops at all costs, technically well presented.

Packer sold it in 1972 to Rupert Murdoch. And this brings me to Melbourne, which my Melbourne readers will be relieved to read that Haskell doesn’t ignore! He writes:

In Melbourne, probably in Australia, the greatest power in journalism is Sir Keith Murdoch; he has been called ‘Lord Southcliffe’ and also ‘the maker of Prime Ministers’. He looks the part.

Haha … I enjoy Haskell’s references to physical appearances. Haskell praises several Melbourne papers, Murdoch’s Melbourne Herald, as well as The Age and Argus. He’s surprised that they didn’t take sides in Victoria’s “drink referendum”. Of papers in smaller cities, he is similarly positive, saying they “are also of a high standard, and are surprisingly free from parochialism.”

And then he – remember he was an arts critic – says something even more interesting:

The Australian press as a whole gives considerable space to art criticism and treats the artist with far greater respect than our own popular press, though its criticism of local artists tend to be too benevolent to be of the greatest value.

This is interesting on two fronts. One is his praise of the commitment to arts criticism, which suggests too that there was a readership for it. The other is his belief that criticism of the arts can have value – that it is important – but that to have value it needs to be willing to be a bit tougher than it is.

He says Keith Murdoch is interested in art, and that he has “an admirable critic” in Basil Burdett. Haskell describes Burdett as “a man with an artistic background that would be exceptional in any country”. Now, I hadn’t heard of Burdett, so I decided to check him out in Trove. The first hits I got were about his death in an air crash Singapore in 1942. He was Assistant Australian Red Cross Commissioner in Malaya. The Sydney Morning Herald, reporting his death, quoted Australian artist, and President of the Society of Artists, Sydney Ure Smith:

He had taste, knowledge, and that rare quality — enthusiasm … As a writer on art, he was well-informed and progressive without being narrow. He was a valuable art critic.

Anyhow, Haskell mentions two other critics, and I’ll share his description of those too. There’s The Sydney Morning Herald’s “well-informed art critic”, Kenneth Wilkinson, whose field, Haskell writes, “is made to cover painting, music, the drama and the films; probably too much for any one man”. Fair point, don’t you think? And there’s “J.S. McDonald, now curator of the Melbourne Museum”. He “was formerly an art critic” and “whether one agrees with him or not” he “is one of the most entertaining and forceful writers on art”. Has anyone heard of these?

Haskell then turns to the social pages, which occupies much space in all papers and which Australia’s intelligentsia describes as “provincial”. However, Haskell again shows his independence of mind when he suggests it probably is, but why “very lengthy accounts of the doings of that small clique known as cafe society in the London and New York press should be worthier of attention I cannot understand”. Why indeed! Further, he comments that Australian gossip columns are “not snobbish”. They are, and this must clearly be a dig at the British equivalents, “written by journalists about people and not by titled amateurs about their friends”! He writes that

Miss Brown of Wagga, Miss Jones of Gundagai, will both find a space when they come to Sydney or Melbourne, and, what is more, their dresses will be described as minutely as the Governor’s Lady’s.

Perhaps this is a good time to remind you of my first post on Haskell in which I quoted his being (initially) “aggressively uninterested” in visiting Australia.

Haskell also talks about “the paper that has represented Australia the most and that has a place in the history of Australian literature … the famous Sydney Bulletin.” He admits it’s “a little tamed today” but still represents “a national way of thinking”. Its goals, which were to encourage Australians to love their own country, have resulted in “the formation of an Australian manner of expression” which is “often crude, never ‘literary’ from the English point of view”, but is “vigorous and creative”.

I love that an English visitor was able to assess Australia, as a place in its own right and not a little England.

12 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Arnold Haskell on the Arts (2)

      • Seems like a very fair minded survey of Australian press of that period.. Those Packers and Murdochs looming in the scene1

        • Thanks Ian. Yes, I found his survey very interesting in that regard – and it was certainly interesting to see the mention of those two dynasties (as against the Sydney Morning Herald Fairfaxes who aren’t mentioned by name. They were serious players for a long time but were less showy.)

    • Not well, I’d say Stefanie. There’s too much syndication for a start so our local capital-city-of-Australia reviewers are not getting the work they used to because we are getting the book reviews, for example, from the big metropolitan papers.

  1. I have just read a fasinating and interesting book about the media, journalists and their professionalism – “The Media and the Massacre” by Sonya Voumard. This book is on the long list of the Stella Prize. Lisa has written an excellent review of this book at her blog.

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