Review: Art Was Their Weapon


Art Was Their Weapon: The History of the Perth Workers’ Art Guild by Dylan Hyde (Fremantle Press 2019)

What a labour of love Dylan Hyde’s Art Was Their Weapon is.  The interviews for this history of the Perth Workers’ Art Guild in the 1930s go right back to 1993. Many of the key players from the guild were still alive then, and lucid. None of them are still with us today, and so in his extensive interviews, Hyde has preserved the voices of a generation of radicals and a fascinating milieu. Continue reading

Flood the city: notes from a nervous Perth climate protestor



I was one of those despicable climate protestors blocking the Perth CBD yesterday. I hate inconveniencing people, but this is an emergency. I was feeling dread in the days leading up to the protest. For security reasons, there weren’t many details given out to rank-and-file protestors like me about what we were going to do. And you never know how the police are going to act. They can be fair and respectful to protestors or they can play hardball and be unpredictable. And who was going to look after the kids if we both got arrested? Continue reading

Fifty years dead: notes on how Katharine Susannah Prichard has fared

1941-10-28 KSP

Katharine in 1941

Katharine Susannah Prichard, fifty years dead today.

Auden wrote of Yeats’ death, ‘The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers’. But it’s also the fate of the dead author to become their detractors as well as their admirers, or perhaps to be forgotten altogether. Katharine hasn’t been forgotten altogether; she has a handful of books in print – more than most dead Australian authors;  she is venerated at the writers’ centre which meets in her old home; and she is recognised as a significant writer by scholars. Yet it’s ironic to find her remarking how sorry she is for Miles Franklin dying without due recognition in 1954 when Franklin has fared much better posthumously than Katharine.

She wrote to fellow communist Vic Williams ‘If only, in the time to come, my works will have helped people to realise the future they can create for this country of my own, I will be satisfied.’ She’d be horrified at what the country has become – communism has died, inequality has widened, greed and materialism have taken over. We have not given up on the madness of war or exploitation.

Soon after Katharine’s death, a brutal obituary appeared in Overland from Dorothy Hewett. Hewett had grown disillusioned with communism and, by extension, with Katharine for her unswerving loyalty to the Soviet Union and to the effect Hewett felt it had on her writing. ‘In the clash between the artist’s pagan and poetic sensibilities… and the moralising Marxist religieuse, it is the latter who finally wins the battle.’ If the obituary has elements of truth in it, it is ungenerous and reflects Hewett’s own issues as much as Prichard’s.

The letters in the archives show that the obituary made Katharine’s son, Ric Throssell, so angry he decided he would write a biography of her. Published in 1975, Wild Weeds and Windflowers shows some of the defensiveness of its origins. Yet I was surprised to encounter a note by Ric in his papers from an interview he conducted with Hewett to gain her perspective on his mother. It reveals he was dreading the interview but came away charmed and having been glad he spoke to her. The original enmity had faded; Hewett was to go on to write a generous and appreciative tribute to Katharine on her centenary in 1983 – ‘Happy birthday, Brave Red Witch’.

Posthumously, Katharine’s novel Coonardoo (1929) continued to be her best known work and came to be seen as part of the Australian literary canon, included in high school and university curriculums. It was praised for what was considered its progressive depiction of Aboriginal people and its concern with injustices against them. This success has caused its current problems, as Aboriginal scholars like Jeanine Leane and others have argued that its racial stereotypes which are now ninety years old have been perpetuated through its simplistic teaching as an ‘Aboriginal’ novel.

Meanwhile, the Cold War is over, and communism is not quite the dirty word it used to be. Yet Katharine has been dogged by the claim by Desmond Ball and David Horner in their 1998 book Breaking the Codes  that she was a Soviet spy. I’m yet to finish my research into this, but I’m not convinced by the evidence they provide. It’s the sort of accusation that sticks, though, and the columnists for The Australian seem to mention it quite often.

Katharine’s work is diverse enough that there’s scope for a continuing readership. The dark circus drama through the backblocks of Australia in Haxby’s Circus; the beautiful evocation of the karri forests around Pemberton in Working Bullocks – if only it was in print; love affairs on the beaches of Perth in Intimate Strangers. Her quite superb short stories. I could go on and on.

Of course, I think her life is her most interesting story of all. It has everything – multiple tragedies, romance, war and revolution, and a determined spirit in an often frail body. I will finish my biography before too long, and I hope it will stimulate renewed interest in both her life and work.

The death of Katharine Susannah – 50 years today



It’s fifty years today since Katharine Susannah Prichard died. To mark the occasion, I wrote a post about her death for the KSP Writers Centre:

Next month, Westerly will be publishing my creative non-fiction piece “‘As my Great Day Approaches’: Katharine Susannah Prichard in 1969”, which intertwines an account of Katharine’s final year with my own reflections on writing her biography and the meaning of death.

Five stories for the 50th anniversary of Katharine Susannah Prichard’s death



Tomorrow, 2 October 2019, is the 50th anniversary of the death of Katharine Susannah Prichard. I’m tweeting about it this week from using the #KSP50 hashtag.  Here’s a thread I tweeted:
Commemorate #KSP50 by reading one of Katharine Susannah Prichard’s best stories on @TroveAustralia (in no strict order):
2. Christmas Tree (1919) – the first story she wrote in Western Australia, after traveling out to her husband’s struggling farm in the Wheatbelt. It’s one of the most successful integrations of politics in her oeuvre.

3. Buccaneers (1935) – a light-hearted, gently humorous story of middle-age which evokes WA’s Rottnest Island superbly. It’s amazing that she wrote this soon after the suicide of her husband, Hugo, and while flat out for the Communist Party.

4. The Bride of Faraway (1933) – if you don’t want to read KSP’s massive goldfields trilogy, you could read this proto-version. It came out of prospecting w/Hugo; she was on the boat back from London after his suicide by the time it appeared. #KSP50

Perth School Strike For Climate: notes from the middle of the crowd



It was humbling to be led by school students, born this century, in the Global Climate Strike on Friday. But also inspiring. The turnout in Perth was estimated at 10,000, and Forrest Place was filled to the brim. Even this impressive turnout was overtaken by smaller cities, Hobart and Canberra, but that’s just a sign of how big this day was, how many people are concerned enough to make a stand. Continue reading

The Colours of Katharine: a special event

1969 screen cap

It’s the fiftieth anniversary of Katharine Susannah Prichard’s death on 2 October 2019. The KSP Writers’ Centre is commemorating with some special events. Louise Helfgott has written a play about the friendship between her brother, David, and Katharine, and it’s being performed a number of times over the week. One of the performances is on Sunday 6 October as part of a full day program, “The Colours of Katharine: Red Witch or Lavender Lady?” at Katharine’s old house in Greenmount.

I’ll be giving a speech at 10:10am:

10.10 AM    Katharine Susannah Until the End: KSP in 1969. Special guest talk by Nathan Hobby.

Katharine Susannah Prichard had begun to seem frailly invincible by 1969, the year she died. Having survived a stroke and published a novel in her eighties, she was still writing, still hosting visitors from around the world, and still keeping up her keen interest in world affairs. In this talk, her biographer Nathan Hobby traces the final stage of Katharine’s life through her weekly letters to her son, Ric, giving a picture of her daily life at 11 Old York Road Greenmount, as well as reflecting on the meaning of death for a biographer.

After that, Katharine’s granddaughter, Karen Throssell, will be launching the commemorative anthology from the competition earlier this year. I selected the fiction and non-fiction pieces and there’s some great work in it, adding up to a fascinating mosaic of Katharine, Hugo Throssell, and the mythology around them.

I’m also looking forward to a talk by Dylan Hyde about his new book:

12.30 PM    Book talk with Dylan Hyde: Art Was Their Weapon: the History of the Perth Workers’ Art Guild (Fremantle Press, 2019)

The Workers’ Art Guild was a radical cultural and political force in Perth in the 1930s and 1940s, embracing new ideas in a provincial, isolated city. The Guild’s innovative approaches to theatre and art were praised by critics, but its left-wing politics, influenced by the Communist Party of Australia, were denounced by many. Police and intelligence officers kept close tabs on the Guild, censoring its activities and intimidating and jailing its members in the lead-up to World War II.

Through the lives of its key players, such as writer Katharine Susannah Prichard and theatre maverick Keith George, Art Was Their Weapon illuminates a fascinating era in Western Australian history.

The full program is here. I’m thrilled KSP Writers’ Centre has gone to such lengths to mark the occasion; for anyone interested in Katharine Susannah Prichard, it will be fascinating.

One Day in Collie: the prehistory of my childhood




I spent my childhood, from ages two to fifteen, in Collie and it seems like a dream. I’m not really in touch with anyone who lives there and I’ve only returned a handful of times. The rest of my family lives only fifty kilometres west in Bunbury, but there’s no passing through Collie; it’s not on the way to anything else. It’s a coal mining town in a valley, surrounded by bush on all sides. Continue reading

Katharine Susannah Prichard Underground: Ten Weeks in Kalgoorlie, 1941


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This is a paper I presented at the Association for the Study of Australian Literature conference in Perth, July 2019. The conference theme was ‘dirt’.

Literature and politics were always interacting in the life and work of Katharine Susannah Prichard. The clash and confluence of the two are both apparent in her ten week research trip to the gold-mining town of Kalgoorlie in 1941. The tensions in this moment in Australian history are suggested by the fact that much of our knowledge of Prichard’s trip is thanks to the files kept by two government agencies—one, the Commonwealth Literary Fund which was giving her money; and the other, the intelligence service which was surveilling her. The trip encompassed two forms of dirt—the ‘dirt’ of a mining industry and the ‘dirt file’ being kept on Prichard as a dangerous radical. Continue reading