Richard Appleton, Appo: Recollections of a member of the Sydney Push

Richard Appleton, Appo

Appo book cover (Courtesy: Sydney University Press)

I wanted to start my review of Richard Appleton’s memoir, Appo: Recollections of a member of the Sydney Push, with a mention of its evocative cover, but I now see that my friend Lisa, at ANZLitLovers, has already done this, so I’ll start more boringly with definitions instead! According to Wikipedia, the Sydney Push was a left-wing intellectual group that operated in Sydney from the late 1940s to the early 1970s. On the back of the book, the Push is described as “our most original Bohemia”. What Appleton (1932-2005) describes in his memoir though is something rather less romantic, rather more earthy, than these descriptions connote. In fact, it seems that drinking and sex were about as important as protest and debate.

At the beginning of the book, Appleton lists what he sees as the strands of Sydney Libertarianism which defined the Push:

  • sexual liberty (as “a necessary precondition for political liberty”)
  • permanent protest (which Push member and academic Jim Baker describes as “the permanent struggle to keep alive libertarian values and interests”)
  • pluralism (which he describes as “the recognition of different and frequently conflicting interests, both within and between societies”)

I’m sure readers here know what Libertarianism is but, to make it simple, here is the neat definition from Wikipedia: “term for political theories that advocate the maximisation of individual liberty in thought and actionand the minimisation or abolition of the state.” This equates with Wikipedia’s description of the Push as being defined by “rejection of conventional morality and authoritarianism”.

At first glance the title raises the expectation that the book is about the Push but, when you look at the title carefully, what it actually says is that it is “the recollections” of  “a member of the Push”. That means, really, that it’s about him! And it is. There is a lot of Push in it, because clearly the Push and the relationships he formed within it, frame his life, but it is not a thorough history of the Push. He talks as much about his membership of the Communist Party of Australia and of the Australian Labor Party (ALP), his various forays into work in rural Australia, his poetry, and his work as an editor/encyclopaedist, as he does about the Push. And that’s fair enough, given the title!

Like most memoirs, it’s a pretty straightforward read. The style is chatty, with light attempts at humour that sometimes work, but  can sometimes be a little smart-alecky (“A new cycle of Push deaths had by then begun, and I had no wish to conform to that mortifying fashion”). He is (mostly) honest about his failings, which is something I like in a memoir. Structure-wise, the book is largely chronological, with the odd thematic tangent but he signposts these for us, such as this at the end of chapter 18: “While I was involved in politics I still had of course a professional and a private life. Both are dealt with, in that order, in the following chapters”.

It’s a frustrating book at times – partly because to preserve people’s privacy he is selective about what he does and doesn’t cover, and partly because there are many anecdotes (often drinking stories) in the book which seem to add little to our understanding of the Push or of him. Or perhaps that’s the point – and they do! Because the Push, as he describes it and I have no reason to argue with him, seems to be a very slippery beast. Also, presumably in the same attempt to maintain privacy, he drops hints that he doesn’t follow up. For example he refers a few times to his obsessive compulsive disorder, implying he was diagnosed late, but he never does really explain this. I found that a little mystifying, but perhaps it is this very “condition” which informs the way the book plays out.

All this aside, I did enjoy the book. It is at its most lively when he describes his several forays into rural Australia for work. His aim was to work and save money so he could return to Sydney and support his Push life of writing (poetry) and drinking. He worked hard at a wide range of jobs – destroying rabbit burrows and then catching rabbits was one such job – but for one reason or another, none of these jobs resulted in the benefits he desired. They made for some good stories though – and they provide insight into the times. I also enjoyed hearing about his life as an active member of the ALP (particularly the machinations of the factions that underpin that party) and about his experiences as an editor/encyclopaedist. He worked on The Australian Encyclopaedia, and was editor-in-chief of two editions. I would like to have heard more on this – it would, I’m sure, make a book in its own right. I also enjoyed the references to people in the Push, some of whom, just a generation older than I, have crossed my path (some in person, some by hearsay, and some through their writings). It’s interesting seeing them in (their often formative) context. The most well-known, to me anyhow, members include feminist/author Germaine Greer, author/commentator Clive James, artist John Olsen, writer Frank Moorhouse, poets Les Murray and Harry Hooton, and film producer Margaret (née Elliott) Fink.

Since Lisa started with the cover, I’ll end with it. It comprises a portrait of the author by David Perry (an Australian avant-garde filmmaker). It is shadowy, with just a few telling details; it teases us with the possibility of a bigger story. One could almost say the same of the book. It is what it is, a set of recollections, and as such provides a readable entrée to the world of the Push, but it is not, and does not pretend to be, the main course.

Richard Appleton
Appo: Recollections of a member of the Sydney Push
University of Sydney: Darlington Press, 2009
ISBN: 9781921364099

(Review copy supplied by the Sydney University Press)