Let’s think about 1925, when my father was 13/14 years old. There was, he told me more than once, a group of artists that used to come down to Shellharbour – from Sydney, one imagines. My father spent time with them, and they encouraged his artistic talent, evidence of which I have seen in works he drew during World War 2, none of which survive.
My grandfather T D Whitfield didn’t encourage this artiness. My father told me that he therefore hid his art gear and paintings in a rock shelter on what was then Native Dog Hill, Mount Warrigal today.
Perhaps my grandfather also had in mind the influences my dad as a very handsome boy who had just left school at 13 may have been subjected to.
DH Souter, who supervised the decorations for the 1923 artists’ ball, described it as a ‘jazz fantasy’. It was at this ball that the famous poet, writer and Queen of Bohemia, Dulcie Deamer, wore her cavewoman outfit. The photograph of Deamer dressed in a wrap-around leopard skin hide complete with a dogtooth necklace has come to symbolize the joi de vivre of the decade, despite Deamer’s own protest regarding its relevance.
Perhaps the most notorious of the artists’ balls of this decade was held at the Sydney Town Hall in 1924. The ball turned, if not into an orgy, then into a veritable bacchanalia: alcohol flowed freely and spirits were smuggled in in great numbers. Deamer called it the ‘Night of the Great Scandal’. The theme of this ball was ‘Back to Childhood’, so George Finey hid a bottle of rum in his nappy, secured with a safety pin, and Jack Lindsay hid whisky flasks in the habit of his friend who had dressed as Friar John. In the basement of the Town Hall the floor was covered in beer. Fights erupted after gatecrashers climbed through the basement windows, and extra police and the fire brigade were eventually called to clear the overcrowded basement which was littered with drunken semi-naked women, broken crockery and high spirited revellers. The Lord Mayor’s orderly, Martin Carrick, reported that ‘in one place I saw a helpless man and woman vomiting into each other’s laps’, and in the Ladies Rest Rooms ‘men were entering with women and locking themselves in the compartments’.
Certainly sometime around 1925 my father encountered the poetry of Swinburne. In the 1960s I found that rather sad, seeing Swinburne through Leavisite eyes – not a great figure in the pantheon of Sydney University English in those days.
A land that is lonelier than ruin
A sea that is stranger than death
Far fields that a rose never blew in,
Wan waste where the winds lack breath;
Waste endless and boundless and flowerless
But of marsh-blossoms fruitless as free
Where earth lies exhausted, as powerless
To strive with the sea.
Far flickers the flight of the swallows,
Far flutters the weft of the grass 10
Spun dense over desolate hollows
More pale than the clouds as they pass
Thick woven as the weft of a witch is
Round the heart of a thrall that hath sinned,
Whose youth and the wrecks of its riches
Are waifs on the wind.
Actually it is rather dreadful, isn’t it? Not so this painting in the Art Gallery of NSW, which my father loved, as do I still.
W Lister Lister “The ever restless sea” 1892
My father also encountered in the 1920s the writings of Robert Ingersoll.
I do not say, and I do not believe, that Christians are as bad as their creeds. In spite of church and dogma, there have been millions and millions of men and women true to the loftiest and most generous promptings of the human heart. They have been true to their convictions, and, with a self-denial and fortitude excelled by none, have labored and suffered for the salvation of men. Imbued with the spirit of self-sacrifice, believing that by personal effort they could rescue at least a few souls from the infinite shadow of hell, they have cheerfully endured every hardship and scorned every danger. And yet, notwithstanding all this, they believed that honest error was a crime. They knew that the Bible so declared, and they believed that all unbelievers would be eternally lost. They believed that religion was of God, and all heresy of the devil. They killed heretics in defence of their own souls and the souls of their children. They killed them because, according to their idea, they were the enemies of God, and because the Bible teaches that the blood of the unbeliever is a most acceptable sacrifice to heaven.
My father was fond of Omar Khayam:
His creed was “moderation in all things”. Since I became a dedicated Calvinist in the mid 1960s I found that disappointing; I am sure Dad was however trying to tell me something. It was around this time he mentioned Colonel Ingersoll.