Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Subsection: News Review
When the Push came to shove
Elizabeth Farrelly explores what remains – in memories and legacy – of Sydney’s most famous fringe.
It’s a summer evening book launch in the upstairs back room of a corner pub in Glebe. The young man at the rear table looks bored. He’s there to sell books, but the crowd is mostly three times his age and his expectations are low. Very low. It’s work, says the body language, period.
But as the septuagenarians hand the mike around the young man’s eyes widen, and widen again. The ponytail hangs straighter down his back. These oldies, without a shade of embarrassment, are good-humouredly footnoting the “strange agonising needs and sexual urges” of one Gordon Barton – businessman, newspaperman, politician and subject of the book. “He liked to be tied up,” recalls Marion Manton (then Hallwood), one of Barton’s long-term lovers. “But I said, ‘I’m no good at knots.’ He was into S&M but not, I think, whips.”
She defers here to the superior scholarship of Gretel Pinniger, another of Barton’s numerous ex-lovers, aka Madame Lash. “He wanted to be locked in a black leather bag inside a cage that was also locked,” drawls Lash, heavy-lidded, “and be expected any minute at a meeting of Arab oil sheiks deciding a six-million dollar deal. I just didn’t have the stomach for it. I’m much too responsible. But yes, he hated the lash. Brought his own toolkit.” General laughter. “But,” comes the afterthought, “I’m not a kiss-and-teller, so that’s where it’ll end.”
It doesn’t, of course, end there. This room is bubbling with a huge, joyous disrespect for authority and a sexual frankness that is, even in today’s sex-glutted age, extraordinary. They use the f-word a lot, making a verb of sex while distinguishing it from love – which is much harder to be candid about, as well as harder to do well. They exchange gleeful tales – like when Barton leapt from a box at his own birthday party, all tied up and wearing a gas mask.
Where does it come from, this intense, persistent, irreverent and sexualised ball of political energy that was – that still remembers itself as – the famous Sydney Push? Where did it go? And what, beyond memories, is its legacy?
Surprisingly few people these days have heard of the Push. Of those who have, many accept the dominant caricature as a club for “talking, drinking and fornicating”, in Frank Moorhouse’s summary dismissal. Barry Humphries’s disdain is even more piquant: “a fraternity of middle-class desperates, journalists, drop-out academics, gamblers and poets manques and their doxies.”
Neither description is altogether fair. Moorhouse was a bit young, a bit literary and probably a bit uncool to be core Push, while Humphries was even then too right-wing. (Margaret Fink, who was, in Push terminology, “on with” Humphries when she was 24 and he 23, remembers him as “gorgeous looking, congenitally thin and terribly reactionary”. Did they fight, argue a lot? “Good God, no,” she reflects. “We were too busy having an affair.”)
The Push wasn’t just about sex. As Fink bluntly concedes, “there was a lot of that” but even more talking about it. It wasn’t exclusively young, either, though it was absolutely a young people’s movement. Fuelled by a heady mix of ideas, talk and alcohol (there was some speed but marijuana was still a good decade away) as well as fornication, it was a conscious break with authority and a bid for freedom, united by a common foe. What foe? Well, authority, especially hypocritical authority, including moralism, elitism, sexism, violence, religion, careerism, censorship and the hypocrisy of their use by a paternalistic state.
As an attempt to “live without illusions”, the Push also disparaged revolution, which they regarded as doomed simply to enshrine a new ruling class. Instead, they preferred a state of “permanent protest”, intended to create “small, new societies within the shell of the old”. This was “pessimistic anarchism” – as distinguished from utopian or optimistic anarchism of people such as Harry Hooton, a peripheral Push poet who died young-ish and whom Fink still regards as “the love of my life”.
The Push was very much a ’50s phenomenon, a rare luminous moment in a decade that was otherwise universally greyed-over with convention, chauvinism, austerity and postwar parochialism. “You have no idea what Sydney was like then,” recalls Fink. “The population was tiny. A million. That’s nothing. For us there was the Con, Sydney Uni and East Sydney Tech. There were the suburbs and town. That was it. You went into town.”
Intellectually, the Push’s roots go further back, to the Spanish Civil War and the Libertarian teachings of dour, maverick, stuttering, stooped and yet inspirational Sydney Uni academic, the Glaswegian Challis Professor of Philosophy, John Anderson. And it ran, some say, until subsumed into and dissipated by the anti-Vietnam and Green Bans movements of the early ’70s.
But the Push proper began with the 1951 break from Anderson’s Libertarian Society and the shift downtown. Its finest moments – what you might call the High Push years – were lived in the pubs, coffee shops and share houses of 1950s Sydney.
It was a social dance choreographed not just without mobiles but, because most people lived in tiny rented flats, largely without landlines. So each evening, after work or lectures, there’d be this mad rush downtown, by tram, by bus or on foot. If you weren’t in by 6, when the pubs closed, it meant social death for the evening or even the weekend. For the quick, though, there was guaranteed congeniality just about any night of the week. After the pub or cafe, they’d eat at The Greeks or The Italians in Castlereagh Street, or Vadim’s in Challis Avenue, then head off to the party du soir.
The Push’s first downtown drinking establishment was the Tudor on King Street, cosy and wainscoted like a London pub. When that closed, they moved to the nearby Assembly, its charmless, lavatorial interior designed for the 6 o’clock swill. Then there was the Newcastle in George Street (really more art scene than Push) and the legendary coffee bars: Repins on King and the basement Lincoln Inn on Rowe Street, fabled home to Sydney’s fledgling bohemia, soon to be blitzed by Seidler’s super-modern MLC Centre.
Eventually, the Push found a more permanent home in the upstairs back room at the Royal George on Sussex (now the flavourless Slip Inn where “Our Mary” famously met her prince, an irony not lost on Push people.) But this very urbanity sets the Push apart, precluding their classification as simple proto-hippies, since the hippie dreaming, a decade later, was deeply pastoral.
The distinction between the Push and the art scene is often noted. The Push took in writers, poets, intellectuals, academics and the odd entrepreneur but almost no visual artists. Creativity wasn’t frowned upon, exactly, but was simply less important than political thought. Anne Coombs’s Sex And Anarchy quotes Margaret Fink’s frustration with the Push as “a dreary lot who wore dreary clothes, drank in dreary pubs and lived in dreary dwellings with nothing on the walls”. Nobody dressed up. Push women, recalls Fink, were generally so styleless that, in desperation, she began to make clothes for them.
One who did like to dress up – suits of armour, that sort of thing – was Gordon Barton. Never really “core” Push, he was still close enough to the sacred circle to warrant a Push nickname, Strange Agony. And his trucking company Ipec cut its teeth using Push drivers – those who, like future judge and Industrial Relations Commissioner Jim Staples, were judged mechanically competent.
Apart from Barton, Fink, Moorhouse and Humphries, famous names associated with the Push include Germaine Greer (“she didn’t hang around long”), Clive James, Robert Hughes, George Molnar (the philosopher, not the cartoonist), Paddy McGuinness (who was “junior Push mascot” until his politics took him across the floor), Harry Hooton, George Clarke (the token architect, mainly because he was more interested in politics), Lillian Roxon, Wendy Bacon, Liz Fell, Virginia Bell and philosophers Jim Baker and David Armstrong.
There are many others, and almost as many disputes as to who was and wasn’t core. Several, like “Oz boys” Richard Neville and Martin Sharp, were “baby Push”. But one thing everyone agrees is that the two central figures – the “Princes of the Push”, although both would despise the term – are two of the least famous, Darcy Waters and Roelof (pronounced Rule-Off) Smilde.
Both men were good talkers with commanding – some say “beautiful” – voices, strong ideas and powerful presences. Attractive and, in the collective memory, “glamorous”, they were nevertheless two quite different characters.
Smilde came from a strongly religious family that migrated from Holland when he was seven. Immersing himself in school to escape unhappiness at home, he became captain of North Sydney Boys High, as well as swimming and athletics champion, with a Sydney Uni scholarship and the general “most likely” tag. After two years of arts at uni, however, he felt “full of wild dreams and mad urges” and dropped out.
Thus began his education. A sixth-form teacher had taken Smilde’s class to the races “to study the odds,” and punting offered an acceptable, non-establishment source of cash. It also allowed him a deal of leisure, which Smilde used to become a world-class bridge player and Australian representative.
Waters, who died in 1997, was a part-Aboriginal boy from country Casino. Tall, with Hitler-youth good looks – blue-eyed and blond – he was funny and charming, with a natural grace that magnetised both genders. Yet he seemed without vanity. Fink recounts Darcy swooping into a uni arts ball, going from table to table swiping sandwiches and striding out. “I thought, ‘My God, who was that? That’s what I’m after. Not these prissy boys in their frills and dinner suits.’ He wanted us to get off together but I said no. I was still a virgin – let me see, if I was still a virgin it was 1951 – and he was so gentlemanly about it.” To afford her a taxi home, he split with her the change in his pocket. “Not all, half. That was so sweet, so typical.”
With the sex came inevitable sexism. Even now, people remember Push men for what they believed, and Push women for who they were “on with.” Wendy Bacon, for example, being much younger, was “baby Push,” but she was no wallflower, and would later earn notoriety by demonstrating outside court in nun’s regalia that bore the message, “I have been f—ed by god’s steel prick.” And yet, even now, Fink remembers Bacon as “a terrific girl, very pretty” as well as heroic, but whose claim to Push legitimacy rested, at least in part, on her being “on with both Darcy and Roelof”.
Sex And Anarchy notes that while for Push men status brought sex, for Push women sex brought status. Without sex – if by some miscalculation they became mothers – many of the women felt they no longer had entree. This asymmetry is not so different from most corporate environments, even now, but these were pre-pill times and Push men didn’t use condoms. Inevitably, there were lots of abortions.
“I think we were too hard on women,” says Smilde now. “We expected them just to stand up and be Libertarians, if that was what they wanted. But it was such a sexist bloody society. We didn’t see it wasn’t that simple.”
“Germaine,” he reflects, “was the exception. She was more like a man.” This is something else on which everyone agrees. “Germaine stormed across campus like some force of nature,” recalls Leon Fink, who was barely even fringe Push.
For many women, though, it was hard. And yet it was worth it. They chose this life because it was exciting. Because here, and only here, they could say anything, criticise anything, be anything (except a mother). They could steep themselves in intellectual talk and belong to a crowd that would insist on at least the level of equality that meant paying your own way and refusing to go to pubs that, as was standard, segregated the genders.
Waters’s ASIO file records that he was a nine-year philosophy student who refused to sit exams for eight of them, then scored 100 per cent; also that he was a “member of the Society for the Promotion of the Fantastic Way of Life” and that he had never done a day’s work. In fact, both Waters and Smilde worked as wharfies during this period and this, together with Anderson’s increasingly strident anti-communism, was the impetus for the group’s move off campus and into the “real” world.
You can see the Push as a movement that was strongly moral yet anti-moralism; clearly hierarchical but anti-elitism; intensely political but disinclined to agitate for change; intensely verbal but leaving little written evidence; avowedly egalitarian but inclined to treat women as sexual conveniences; overwhelmingly heterosexual but with a hidden homoerotic competitiveness between the main men.
All these criticisms have been voiced and with some validity. But to see the Push itself as hypocritical would be to expect a level of consistency and self-awareness that is given to few, at any age and in any era; fewer still in their 20s and the 1950s.
Within a decade or so, most peeled off to pursue careers in academia, politics or law. Wendy Bacon, now Professor of Journalism at UTS, is still fighting the censorship battles that made her name, only now, ironically, the gagging foe is the Sydney Writers’ Festival.
But of all of them, Smilde has remained truest. Eschewing career, never owning a credit card and living most of his adult life in a co-operative (where he is still) Smilde recently ditched the car in favour of public transport and shanks’s pony.
Now 78, Smilde remains a kind, reflective man, a rigorous intellectual and, even while recognising the impossibility of this, a dedicated shedder of illusions. He tutors a few postgraduate students – just for love, the ones he thinks might get it – and still spends a lot of time talking and reading in coffee houses. “We tried to live by our principles. We were naive of course, but I think we were successful,” he says, “in a way, for a while.”
Perhaps it’s pessimistic anarchism. Or perhaps it’s just the kind of humane yet determined realism the world could use a lot more of right now.
TWO PHOTOS: Trussed account . . . trucking magnate Gordon Barton, known in the Push as “Strange Agony”, arrives in style at a corporate party in 1976. Photo: Peter Moxham
Ideas and fornication . . . Barton, Darcy Waters and Margaret Fink. Photo from Sex And Anarchy