Dissenting voices in 1960s Sydney
In this extract from her book Living the 1960s, actor Noeline Brown finds radical thinkers in a Sydney restaurant
12 December 2017
The conservatives seemed to have been in power forever in 1960s Australia, but Noeline—sporting dramatic black eye makeup and smoking the odd Sobranie—found voices of dissent.
I used to meet my friends at a restaurant called Vadim's, which was run by Russian immigrant Vadim Kargopoloff (which he fortunately shortened to Kerr). The cafe was popular with journalists and artists because it stayed open till very late. We would often sit and talk till dawn, many of us criticising the government for sending 20-year-olds to war, when at the time they were considered too young to vote or even marry without consent.
I met Francis James, the flamboyant journalist and editor of the left-leaning newspaper The Anglican, at Vadim's. He entered the room late one night, wearing a floppy hat and wrapped in a cloak. (James was accused of being a spy and jailed by the Chinese in 1969, so the cloak may well have been concealing a dagger.) In 1960, after gaining entrance through a toilet window, James had a fist fight with Frank Packer and his young son Kerry over possession of the Anglican Press building, and the Packers were forced to leave the premises. James dusted himself off and went straight to Vadim's.
Some publications were critical of the government, such as Nation, an independent fortnightly paper run by the highly respected Tom Fitzgerald and George Munster.Tom and George were regulars at Vadim's, occupying the most sought-after table, and I am pleased to say I was often asked to join them. The influential feature writer and theatre critic Harry Kippax ate at the same table at Vadim's every night after he finished work at The Sydney Morning Herald. I often had to defend my political beliefs as Harry was a bit of a right-winger and critical of anyone supporting the Labor Party, but I tearfully stood my ground.
The satirical magazine Oz hit the streets on 1 April 1963. Oz was the brainchild of the youthful Richard Neville, Richard Walsh and gifted artist Martin Sharp, who honed their skills in university newspapers. They would appear before the courts, charged with obscenity for their satirical efforts, both here and in the UK. I remember being part of a concert to raise money for their legal representation where they were defended by barrister and later QC Neville Wran, who would go on to serve as premier of New South Wales.
One night, millionaire Gordon Barton joined the group. Barton, a South Australian, ran a successful trucking empire. He and Ken Thomas, founder of TNT, were in the process of establishing the Liberal Reform Group, to voice their disapproval of the Liberal Party and the war in Vietnam. Barton later bought Nation, which he published as a weekly, and renamed Nation Review. His political party would become the Australia Party and their preferences would help get Labor over the line in 1972.
In 1966, I attended a party with novelist and Communist Party member Frank Hardy and others, where we welcomed the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko to Australia. It was a great night of poetry and song. Unaccompanied, Frank sang a couple of Irish ballads in a rather pleasant tenor voice, Yevtushenko performed some of his poems in impenetrable Russian and everyone drank rather a lot. I felt sure ASIO would have been lurking outside the building, taking photographs from their ‘butterboxes', cameras hidden inside briefcases. Some years later, I was approached at a bar by two young men dressed in neat suits, a not altogether familiar sight at the 729 Club at that hour of night. One of the men wanted to know if I was sharing a table with Frank Hardy. He was very keen to find out what I knew about Frank and it later became clear that the stranger was an ASIO operative. I don't think I was very helpful to him that night because I have since discovered there is no ASIO file on me, a cause of deep disappointment when it came to writing my memoirs.
Living the 1960s by Noeline Brown was released on 1 October 2017 by NLA Publishing, the imprint of the National Library of Australia.