Wednesday, 29 February 2012

World War Two radicalised Aussie nature writer

Archer Russell as featured in
Australian magazine 'Progress'
I spent most of last week at the library in Sydney poring over boxes of material left after the death, in 1960, of Australian nature writer and journalist Archer Russell. What I took away is a sense of how war can be "formative" for a person exposed to it. But I took away another idea, which I explore in this blog post.

In Russell's history, the 1930s were spent in the employ of the Sydney Morning Herald, which is, still today, a legacy broadsheet that has claims to national relevance. Back in those days, publishers Fairfax produced a weekly journal in addition to the regular daily SMH, and it was called the Sydney Mail. It was distributed throughout New South Wales, Australia's most populous state. One section of the paper was 'Outdoor Australia' and it appears to me that Russell was the editor of this page. Among his papers there are many letters sent by NSW readers to the editor of the page.

Russell's editorial contribution to the Fairfax stable of mastheads went further than this, however. There is one letter among his papers from a 16-year-old girl living in the southern NSW town of Leeton thanking him for a booklet she had read titled Birds: The Adventure of Living. There is a copy of this booklet, which was published by Fairfax, in the library, and the database entry has it down as published in 1939, possibly due to this girl's letter having a date in that year. Born in 1881, Russell was about 58 when this booklet appeared and he had spent a lot of his life as an adult writing about wildlife. His efforts in this vein seem to have started in 1918 with stories place with Adelaide publication the Saturday Journal. In 1919, when he was about 38, his first book (as far as I can ascertain) appears, titled Wild Life in Bush Land, but the second book didn't come out until 1930 (I haven't got a copy yet). Meanwhile, Russell was writing journalism about his travels in the Australian outback for a number of magazines and newspapers. And he was gravitating toward Sydney.

The 1940s demonstrate a change in Russell's output. Just as World War One had launched him on his career of nature writing - he had been an ambulance driver but ended up recuperating from injuries in a small English country town near London, which gave him easy access to parks and forest land - the Second World War radicalised him. Having experienced war in a very personal fashion, Russell quickly chose sides when the fascist threat loomed in Europe. His pamphlet, The Truth About Spain, was published by Communist-affiliated outfit Current Book Distributors, in Sydney, in 1945. It deals with the Spanish Civil War. Just as Russell had lambasted the "get-rich-quick maniac" for ignoring the beauties and inherent value of the natural world, in the forward to his first book, here he attacks the Roman Catholic clergy and (what he calls) "Big Business" for supporting the Right in the bloody and divisive war that served as a prelude to an even larger conflagration that took so many more young lives.

The image accompanying this blog post shows a photograph reproduced in the radical magazine, Progress. The photo was taken at about this time in Russell's life. I think the cast of his head and the upward gaze, to the left, illustrates his new approach to participation in the public sphere. At the same time, Russell was publishing numerous stories, including book reviews, in the Tribune, a Communist newspaper based in Sydney. There are clippings in the library collection from this newspaper. But it did not exclusively define the circle of his interests. In 1949 appeared Russell's biography of Australian agronomist, William James Farrer. Then in 1953 appeared Murray Walkabout, yet another book about nature, and travelling on foot in the midst of nature. So the two strands of his preoccupation with progressive ideals continued, but not in parallel.

I think there is an essential connection between Russell's interest in the Left and his interest in the natural world. He knew from an early stage in his career, post-WWI, that he was different from the run-of-the-mill. His love of nature set him apart, and it was but a small step beyond this preoccupation that transported him into the realms of the radical Left. And both strands of his career find their origins in war. Whether this is of interest to anyone, apart from me, I wonder. But I think it says something about the Left in Australia today, just as it did in Russell's day. If you have any views on this conclusion, please leave a comment.

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