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Sunday, 29 January 2012

Archer Russell waltzed Matilda as a tonic for modern life

Archer Russell goes a'sauntering
in the Australian bush

Before Steve Irwin was born, before the Leyland Brothers packed up their first Land Rover, before even Rolf Harris picked up a wobble-board for the very first time, there were few people to tell Australians about the bush. But back in the days when nature writing was yet a gumnut on the Aussie branch of world literature – still yet to fully flower – there was a man named Archer Russell.

Back in the 1930s, 40s and 50s Archer’s travel books struck a chord with readers living in the nation’s crowded cities, who had begun to value wild places.

“Most of our lyric songsters in poem and prose – great naturalists all – have realised the sedative of the untamed bushland,” wrote ‘Waratah’ of Springwood in a letter to the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald in 1939, “and turned to it for inspiration, far from the pleasure and scenic resorts.”

I first came across Archer Russell a few years ago when I stopped at a roadside bric-a-brac store that sells books. Then I spent a fair bit of time last year researching the man and turned that into a magazine article published this month. But space limitations meant that an amount of material I had gathered was not published, especially as regarding Archer's iconoclastic bent.

From the beginning of his career as a nature writer Archer saw himself as a man apart. 'Bushwalking' as an accepted pastime was a thing of the future. In those days the guy tramping alone in the outback was looked on with suspicion, especially during the dark days of the Depression, in the 1930s. The swagman celebrated in Banjo Patterson's famous poem, now a song of almost mythical status in Australia, 'Waltzing Matilda', was considered an undersirable interloper by remote communities in the hard-scrabble days following the Wall Street crash of 1929. But Archer tramped on, pen and paper handy in his pocket, and wrote stories which he published first in the newspapers and magazines of in his native Adelaide, and then more widely. His bibliography goes like this, as far as I've been able to fix it:
Wild Life in Bushland, W.K. Thomas, Adelaide, 1919
Sunlit Trails, Building Limited, Sydney, 1930
A Tramp Royal in Wild Australia, Jonathan Cape, London, 1934
Gone Nomad, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1936
Bush Ways, Australasian Publishing Co, Sydney, 1944
The Truth About Spain, Current Book Distributors, Sydney, 1945
William James Farrer, F.W. Cheshire, Melbourne, 1949
Murray Walkabout, MUP, Melbourne, 1953
Laughter in the Camp (John Fairfax, edited by Archer Russell), Warwick Boyce, Sydney, 1958
The list of standalone articles is far too long to include here. The key thing is that from the age of about 40 Archer was able to forge a career out of writing about the bush. He was 38 when his first book was published. He was married to Marion, his first wife, by 1920, when he was around the same age. Both the articles and the books would have supplied him with enough money to make a living from writing alone. An iconoclast is someone who dismantles orthodoxies - I'll get to this in a minute. But Archer was also a self-made man who built up a career without any support other than that which derived from the esteem of his readers. This is a fantastic achievement in my view and rivals the achievements of other Australian entertainers such as Clive James and Barry Humphries. Archer's gumption and pluck deserve celebration.

But look at the bibliography again and note what happens in the 1940s. Let's take note especially of the book published by Current Book Distributors, a company known better for its publication of Communist works. The Truth About Spain is less than a book, in fact. The pamphlet, which inveighs against conservative social forces that had assisted the fascist military in the Spanish Civil War, drew the attention of critic Vance Palmer who recommended it on his ABC radio show.

“There is nothing particularly new in these pages, but the humiliating story – humiliating to democratic onlookers in every country – has never been told more clearly and concisely,” Vance wrote. 

This interest in universal values would extend to an involvement in several progressive organisations such as the Australian Culture Defence Movement, the Frank Hardy Defence Committee and the Fellowship of Australian Writers. While publishing with mainstream media he also worked for a magazine called Progress. The pamphlet and such ties would bring him to the attention of ASIO, the national intelligence agency, during the 1950s. ASIO eventually decided that he was merely a “radical minded character, disliking authority”, and left him alone.

Then there's the Farrer biography. Farrer was an unusual man who worked to develop strains of wheat that could withstand the dry climactic conditions found in Australia. His work was not valued at first, and in fact he was ridiculed by many. Farrer is now considered to have hugely contributed to the national good but in his time he was not popular. I have yet to buy Archer's biography and look forward to reading it.

This interest in the individual rather than the mass, the person alone rather than the rollicking group, is what strikes me when I consider Archer's life and his interests.

Somehow a love of nature is blended with this ethos, and it's there in his writings from the very beginning. In a prefatory note to his first book, Archer regrets that “pursuing an unmapped itinerary” is a pastime infrequently adopted by his peers, and he reserves a pointed barb for the “get-rich-quick maniac” who considers tramping “too idle”. The disdain for wealth is clear, and it is linked to a love of the outdoors, which delivers Archer a different kind of wealth.

Archer’s books tend to regard the natural environment purely as a tonic, and he eschews the martial tone evident in the writings of earlier Australian nature writers. Professor Tom Griffiths writes in his 1996 book Hunters and Collectors, about early Victorian naturalists of the generation that came before Archer's, that they inhabited the fringes of bohemian literary culture and shared its obsession with a masculine ethic. “Environmental consciousness blended with the advocacy of racial purity and the assertion of white ‘native’ traditions,” writes Griffiths, director of the Centre for Environmental History at the Australian National University.

Archer’s Romanticism is from an even earlier time than this, and resembles that of Wordsworth rather than that of Kipling. When you read Archer's books there is in them the ancient (for us!) Romantic concept of 'Joy', Schiller's 'Freude', a sustaining sense of pleasure that only the natural environment can deliver. It comes together, in Archer's mind, with the labour of a man like Farrer, who worked against the odds to create something that only he could see a benefit in. It is a feeling that is self-evident to the person who undertakes the activity, in Archer's case bushwalking, in Farrer's case agronomy. And it makes him value freedom from oppression wherever it occurs, as for example it did for Archer after the bloody Spanish civil war of the later 1930s, a war backed by Nazi Germany with the support of the Catholic Church and (what Archer called in his pamphlet) Big Business.

In my mind, the disparate publications that constitute Archer's bibliography all have something that ties them together.

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