Dancing with Empty Pockets: Australia’s Bohemians since 1860
by Tony Moore
Published July, 2013
Kings Cross: A Biography
by Louis Nowra
Published October, 2013
At first glance, the hero-figure of both Louis Nowra’s ‘biography’ of Kings Cross and Tony Moore’s history of Australia’s bohemians is the urban flâneur, but their approaches to this chameleon subject are as disparate as their divergent purposes. In a curiously academic tone, interspersed with generous anecdotal and graphic illustrations, Moore directs our attention to Australia’s bohemians, personalities almost exclusively associated with Sydney and Melbourne. Nowra’s racier take on Sydney’s sometime bohemian quarter includes frequent reflections on antithetical aspects of his personality, as well as a district that has evolved into what Michael Duffy has labelled a ‘convenient dormitory suburb for city workers by day and vomitorium by night’.
Nowra offers an entertaining compendium of historical facts and character sketches, but neither dwells on nor seeks to define the distinguishing traits of the bohemian. His brief lives make a composite biography of his home of two decades, where he finds genial spirits among the myriad personalities who have contributed to the character of Kings Cross: colonial grandees, merchants and professionals, bibliophiles and boulevardiers, artists and exiles, lawbreakers and drug-addicted wraiths. He traverses the haunts of the dead and the living, spinning facticity and personal history like a tour guide assuring us of the veracity of eyewitness testimony.
By contrast, Moore traces a sometimes uncertain line of Antipodean bohemians, from Marcus Clarke to the present, and develops an argument, propped up in part by Pierre Bourdieu’s and others’ theories of cultural production, that accounts for individual and group expressions of dissidence. He identifies a distinctive thread of a still-evolving national identity, though one as slippery as any definition of ‘bohemian’, a term that encompasses entrepreneurial artists, nostalgic urban creators of a bush mythos, avant-garde modernists, Sydney libertarians, countercultural forms of nationalism, expatriate larrikins, post-punk bands, Gen X and Y satirists, comedians, hackers and bloggers.
Moore writes of a continuous transgression and resistance by successive generations of younger bourgeois writers and artists against their elders’ mores and aesthetics. He sees in bohemianism a weapon aimed at older bohemians turned conservative. In Bourdieu’s terms, these bohemians do not inhabit the same present but recognise only ‘their contemporaries in the past’. This is an attractive formulation, though the boundaries of the term bohemian are consequently so insubstantial that the label becomes problematic. ‘Being a bohemian,’ according to Moore, ‘is a licence to take risks and gives the creative youth the touch of glamour and danger that the bourgeois consumer craves if only for one night’s entertainment.’ The lure of glamour and entertainment might equally apply to Zombie parades as to the ‘boudoiresque warehouse parties across Melbourne’ that Moore refers to, though I wonder at the extent to which such fashionable and conformist rituals can be considered productions of ‘creative’ youth, rather than anodyne hijinks.
I am not the first reviewer to ponder how far the word ‘bohemian’ might be stretched to include the contemporary commodification of bohemianism in mass-media generated varieties of youth culture, but I suspect that the blurring of the line has to do with the porousness of production and consumption. Moore claims for bohemianism the role of safety valve for creative spirits, along with a special relationship with radical politics and a concerted resistance to tradition. In many cases, this results in rapprochement with, and even leadership in, the market. Early bohemian artists and writers created in order to sell their wares to the class whose values they were revolting against. Entrepreneurial seizers of the moment, such as Marcus Clarke and Tom Roberts, made self-promotion a way of successfully re-negotiating a definition of avant-gardism and art itself. They did so in order to establish a new aesthetic that appealed to the class from which they sprang. In Moore’s reading, contemporary ‘creative iconoclasts’ similarly acquire cultural capital through eventual approval and celebrity, and move on to become, like their precursors, yesterday’s rebels.
Drawing on Bourdieu’s distinction between ‘social artists’ – nineteenth century European bohemians, who put their skills at the service of radical causes – and the ‘more esteemed’ artists who strove to be free of material and moral restraints, Moore comments that no high literary market, such as existed in France, was present in nineteenth century Australia. This meant that a truly revolutionary culture of participation could develop in publications like the Bulletin. Here Moore is in agreement with Sylvia Lawson, whose landmark book, The Archibald Paradox (2006), highlighted the radicalism of the Bulletin’s approach to journalism, which lay in the collaborative method of production as much as the paper’s radical reform platform. In pinpointing the emergence of a literary bohemia in Australia, Moore is at his most persuasive. He sees in the participation of bohemian artists and writers the foundation of an egalitarian nationalism – one which, by the end of his book, Moore acknowledges to have changed in tandem with the expansion of available means of making a living as artists and the invention of new means of opposing ‘rivals and the already famous’.
Unlike British bohemia, which ‘drifted up the social scale to merge with a decadent aristocracy’, Australian bohemia ‘reached down into labour and revolutionary politics’ from the 1890s to the early 1970s, with all the attendant vexations — the bohemian ‘individualism, hedonism and spirit of topsy-turvey coming up hard against the solidarity, hierarchies and puritanical streak that can be found in left politics’. Australian bohemia’s partial accommodation with the nation, through its decolonisation and embrace of multiple expressions of identities, maintains what Moore calls an ‘ongoing yearning for the metropolis evident in the journeys of bohemians from the country towns, suburbs and outlying states’ to the inner-cities of Sydney and Melbourne, ‘and sometimes on to London and New York’. His account confirms the importance of the city for a cast that includes writers Marcus Clarke, Christopher Brennan, Norman Lindsay, Max Harris, Clive James and Germaine Greer, and artists from Tom Roberts and Charles Conder through to Martin Sharp. Moore seeks to trace a line that crosses from Clarke and members of the Club Bohemia, the Yorick and the Cave of Adullam, to Barry Humphries, Oz magazine, Nick Cave, the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, the Chaser and Julian Assange – a move he labels ‘from Boho to Pomo’.
Moore examines some other historians’ surveys of behviour that rates as ‘bohemian’ in his attempt to net all possible varieties of queer fish in his bohemian net, though he seems less than convinced by Manning Clark’s categories in respect to social reformers, or such catch-all characterisations as Russel Ward’s portrayals of the nineteenth century rural working class. He notes that ‘working class improvers’ regarded as decadent the bohemians’ ‘drinking, laziness and hedonistic consumption, indulged from a position of superior cultural capital’. He persuasively invokes Graham Davison’s argument that many of the characteristics Clark and Vance Palmer attributed to the rural proletariat emerge in the work of bohemians ‘writing from the safety of Sydney and Melbourne’.
Nostalgia for some imagined pastoral world of paradoxical freedom and communitarianism – expressed as ‘mateship’ in defiance of the extension of equality across racial and gender lines –remains a breathtaking simplification to anyone who has read Catherine Helen Spence, Jessie Couvreur, Thistle Anderson, Lala Fisher, Barbara Baynton, and a host of other observers of retrograde masculine attitudes in and beyond Melbourne and Sydney. Moore notes the yearning of so many male writers who, like Henry Lawson and J.F. Archibald, drifted to the city from regional sites. But he curiously refrains from remarking upon the simultaneous attraction of nationalist and internationalist impulses, which distinguished so many female as well as male writers of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century.
Creative women belatedly enter the ranks of Moore’s bohemia with the arrival of Dulcie Deamer and Elizabeth Riddell. But the seemingly all-male sodality of early Australian bohemia admitted women like Deamer, Rose Soady and Anne Brennan as artists’ models or daring exhibitionists, rather than as intellectual and political equals. Moore’s later chapters open the door to Kylie Tennant, Margaret Olley, Mirka Mora, and members of a post-war dispensation emerging from the Sydney Push and Melbourne Drift, though attention to female identities is sporadic and cursory. Anne Brennan is noted as fulfiller of the grisette and muse role that Henri Murger assigned to the tragic Mimi in the original Scènes de la Vie de Bohème (1851). Moore remarks that her ‘model of the female bohemian contrasts with that of the career girls like Dulcie Deamer, Elizabeth Riddell, Thea Procter and Hera Roberts, who, while they may have used sexuality, fell back on their jobs for an identity and stability beyond bohemia’. The same might be said for many of their male colleagues. There is perhaps another book to be written about bohemian women that does not relegate them to ‘career girls’ having a fling, though Australian bohemian memoirs can at times resemble a great wall of male impresarios and grandstanders.
Where Moore seeks to persuade us of the contribution of counter-culture to Australian thought, Louis Nowra offers an argument concerning Kings Cross’s role as ‘a refuge for those whose behaviour, ideas, ethnicity and sense of morality was, for many decades, at odds with mainstream Australian society and culture’. In doing so, he lends weight to Moore’s contention about the appeal of the metropolis for contrarian spirits. Perhaps even more significantly, he demonstrates the ways in which Kings Cross shaped the art of living in high-rise apartments and thereby an Australian sense of modernity.
Nowra is correspondingly under no illusion that every individual in the Cross would acknowledge the label ‘bohemian’. There is a world of variety in the self-images he records of the chary café-owners, conscientious office workers, authors’ agents, property developers, anti-development trade unionists and their residential supporters, divorced or widowed recluses, transsexual showgirls, Lebanese gangsters and ravaged addicts, who constitute part of the inter-generational Kings Cross demographic. Even the boundaries of the district, subject to vagaries of city regulations and property speculators, are unstable to the point of illusory.
In his extensive final notes on sources, Nowra acknowledges the attraction of Georges Perec’s fiction, which employs the concept of the flâneur to create a psychogeography that examines with a ‘forensic yet poetical gaze the banal things we take for granted in our lives’. A biography of Kings Cross, he declares, ‘cannot be aptly undertaken through a chronological history’, though he draws a clear line from the pre-white occupation by the Cadigal people to the attempts by successive Lord Mayors and opportunistic developers to inflict gentrification on the inhabitants’ homes and haunts. He traces the changing fortunes and rituals of the denizens of what remains to some minds Australia’s densest urban agglomeration and to others one of Australia’s most regrettable abominations. A plethora of brief, sometimes single-sentence biographies and anecdotes concerning notable Cross dwellers adds piquancy to the timeline.
Some lines of descent from the Cross’s earliest non-conformists or eccentrics exist in Nowra’s hologram, though he takes no pains to spell out what, if any, dynastic or spiritual kinship unites contemporary residents with those of the past. Rather, the Cross represents for the curious spectator a liminal zone where successive waves of transients and settlers have given ground to fresh arrivals, including the criminal, the cashed-up and the better educated. Some older inhabitants maintain a fierce or grudging loyalty to their local turf, though many depart to greener pastures as their neighbourhoods have taken on the Bukowski-like air of a Barfly movie set or that of a chic enclave. In Nowra’s telling, brothel-keepers of the 1930s and ’40s and more recent gangland honchos have preferred to inhabit genteel eastern suburbs homes, financed by their business interests centred on the Cross.
Nowra is far beyond applying the epithet ‘bohemian’ to such disparate folk as the book-collecting hermit David Mitchell, or rival prostitutes Tilly Devine and Kate Leigh, or Sir Eugene Goossens and the Reverend Ted Noffs. Sophisticated contemporary dwellers, active or retired lawyers and politicians among them, clearly enjoy those aspects of graceful living that first took the elites of Sydney to live on the hill above the rank and many-headed of Woolloomooloo and the nascent wen of the city. Although Nowra notes that ‘cosmopolitan’ served for a time in the 1930s as code for ‘Jewish’, the word, cleansed of its slur, might describe the sensibility of many Kings Cross inhabitants from early times – those who, in the nineteenth century, nostalgically aped the mores and styles of their English antecedents, as well as those later inhabitants whose worldliness stemmed from broader, surprisingly varied and fluid experiences.
So far as Nowra considers ‘bohemia’, he rehearses similar literary case studies to those canvassed by Moore: Cross dwellers like Dulcie Deamer, Kenneth Slessor, Jack Lindsay, Rosaleen Norton and Donald Friend. But he does so sparingly. These are characters in a John Nesbitt-like Passing Parade. Nowra expatiates on the contribution of self-reinventors like Bea Miles and Nellie Smith, of unstable spirits like Gertrude Bodenweiser and Sister Ada Green, and of a broad cast of writers and actors. Hence, he also touches on other literati, such as Mary Gilmore, Kylie Tennant, Dymphna Cusack, the ‘gay dandy’ Hector Bolitho, Betty Roland, Betty Riddell (who remarked of Slessor, ‘Ken was a cold fish’) and Nowra’s uncle, Bob Herbert, whose late play, No Names No Pack Drill (1980), was set against a similar background to Dymphna Cusack’s and Florence James’ Come in Spinner (1951). Nowra writes that an individual who consciously took to ‘self performance’ learned, by mixing in bohemian circles, ‘how to talk, behave and dress like one and so became a bohemian’. Like Nowra, these writers could be said to have been observers of the scene, though they were not defined by what they wrote about it. They experienced brief bohemian phases, for the most part; they had other fish to fry.
At heart, Nowra’s account is a personal essay on the allure of Kings Cross. In the years since his shift from visitor to inhabitant, Nowra has come think of the area as ‘a giant palimpsest’. As he remarks at the outset, ‘every house, apartment block or shop has a history of reinvention and change. Streets, roads and lanes have vanished to be replaced by tunnels, malls or new thoroughfares.’ This is the case with cafés, strip clubs, nightclubs, hotels and bordellos. Constant reminders of the dizzying pace of change provoke Nowra’s musings. Reprised facts and reflections on personal experiences in bars and cafés that have undergone such transformations create a mood and rhythm that will catch some readers out when they re-encounter certain names or details. The structure of the book – a street-by-street guide interwoven with chapters of reminiscence – mentions inhabitants’ associations with more than one address. Nowra reveals a dynamic world of long-term or transient lodgers, peripatetic criminals, barmen and hostesses, club owners, performers, notable eccentrics and addicts. In respect to the many re-encounters, an index of names and institutions might have reassured readers that on occasion they are not losing the plot when they meet again with a character from an earlier chapter.
Most interesting of all reprises is Nowra’s claim that Kings Cross has metamorphosed from a privileged niche-suburb into a high-density habitat that has changed Australians’ ideas of modernity and which suggests further directions in which inner-cities are tending. From ‘Little Paris’, ‘Little Vienna’ and a wartime R & R resort, to the site of drug addicts, Abe ‘Mr Sin’ Saffron and developers bent on erasing features that define the district’s architectural distinction and demographic variety, Nowra’s Cross continues to evolve, embracing inhuman architecture that reinforces fragmentation and alienation, while gesturing toward nostalgia for imagined gracious living-spaces with vestiges of romantic verdure.
If some of his characters possess a flexible sense of morality, Nowra does not suggest everyone who lives in the Cross has a shady past or contributes to the tawdry present. Random violence, sleaze and protean power plays by rival mobsters have been part of Kings Cross life since the 1920s, but it is difficult to think of the natty Kenneth Slessor, leader writer for the Sydney Sun, for instance, as simpatico with the drug-peddling activities of the 1920s ‘Snow Queen’ Kate Leigh and her goons, or the sex-magic rites of Rosaleen Norton and Gavin Greenlees in their Brougham Street coven. If morality meant less than honour among thieves for some of the Cross’s notable criminals, corrupted and corrupting policemen and politicians like Norm Allen and Robin (later Sir Robert) Askin were suppler manifestations of a thoroughgoing disregard for the very idea of rule of law.
The area was not always so inclusive, but in his interleaved chapters of personal recollection of life in the Cross, Nowra records his growing unease and concern, and in so doing reveals aspects of himself that sometimes seem to catch him by surprise. He recounts an occasion in the Mansions hotel when he watched two bouncers escort an abusive drunk into a corner of the bar and proceed to savagely beat him. ‘Two drag queens near me laughed as if it were a piece of theatre, and I found myself laughing too. The line from Lou Reed’s “Street Hassle” sprang up in my gin-soaked brain: “Halfway between a circus and a sewer”. It was an apt description of the Cross.’
If life in the Cross is theatre, Nowra is the right person for the job of chronicler. The clipped, savvy prose of such vignettes typifies the self-consciously noir tone of many of his anecdotes and speech grabs. He revels in the cast of defunct or living characters who, like the people of Dante’s Commedia, make an appearance and mutter, shout, recite or otherwise insinuate their reality. At times, their scripts rival those of Jarry, Artaud or Genet, as they jostle for the author’s attention. Nowra threads his way through historical records and accounts, culling one-liners and headlines that underscore his anecdotes and provide some chapters’ headings: ‘There was a disgraceful state of affairs going on here’ is a lively chapter on rival madams Tilly Devine and Kate Leigh, while ‘The Devil is a woman’ is a melancholy retelling of the career of Rosaleen Norton, the ‘Witch of Kings Cross’, and her part in the demise of Sir Eugene Goossens’ reputation.
Some descriptions are amusingly waspish. The clientele of the Sebel Townhouse provokes ‘Whom the gods wish to destroy they make into a soapie star’. At the La Croix café, clever lighting ‘softens wrinkles and bad plastic surgery’ of the ‘ladies-who-lunch’. Perhaps the least attractive of all the Cross’s apparitions, because so numerous, obnoxious and violent, are the nocturnal Western suburbs invaders of its bars and clubs. Nowra characterises these as blandly dressed males accompanied by ‘miniscule mini-skirted’, ‘gravity-defying’ high-heeled girlfriends, about whom he opines ‘there’s no disguising the fact that there’s an obesity pandemic in our society – some girls resemble Dumbo the Elephant in a tutu’.
Acidulous glosses apart, some of Nowra’s descriptions are intrinsically farcical. His chihuahua becomes erotically interested in a drug dealer’s great dane after sniffing cocaine on the dealer’s floor. Of the brutal gangster Guido Calletti’s 1938 funeral, Nowra writes: ‘Five thousand mourners attended his funeral, while his mistress wept theatrically by his splendid coffin, her face radiant with grief.’ Behind such flourishes, there is a sobering realisation of the violence people are capable of inflicting on themselves and others in the name of power and glamour. Much as he is drawn to the types and antitypes of sleaze, corruption and simmering or sudden violence, Nowra can be disgusted and even angry at some of the actions and sights he records. The elegant pithiness of ‘From now on morality was relative’, concerning the decision by the police to tolerate crime if the gangs would desist from warfare, is of a piece with the crisp summation of Slessor’s Smith’s Weekly entertainments: ‘His light verse focused on girls, not women’.
Twenty-years’ residence in several digs around Kings Cross having bestowed a degree of imperturbability along with the authority to speak, Nowra is nonetheless astounded by the self-abusive behaviour of the Cross habitués he calls Wraiths: ice, cocaine and heroin addicts embarked on the way to self-extinction. He encounters some of these, along with the Rat Man, the fractured Rosie and other familiars, so frequently that I am constantly reminded of his Flying Dutchman status. Walking among touts and junkies, café owners, barmen and prostitutes of all persuasions, or sitting alone in a grotty hotel bar, or with his wife in a café opposite the El Alamein fountain, Nowra is the hero of his book, the picaro who knows where to get a cut-price suit, a martini, a good book, cocaine, marijuana, or smart repartee from shop owners and street people. Fellow Crossite Delia Falconer noted this aspect of the book in her Weekend Australian review. She also notes Nowra’s ‘generosity’ of stories and his disconcertingly old school voice, ‘a mix of chivalry and broad brush that invokes 60s chroniclers of Sydney’s mean streets like Vince Kelly’. She’s on the money there.
Delia Falconer, ‘Louis Nowra exposes the dark side of the Kings Cross neon dream,’ The Weekend Australian (19 October 2013).