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Michael Wilding looks back with infectious amusement

9 April 2016 No Comment

Review of ‘Growing Wild’
By Michael Wilding
Arcadia, 302pp, $39.95

“I do wish you would write your campus farce rather than live it all the time, one of Michael Wilding’s colleagues once suggested. He proceeded to do both — though Wilding delayed publishing ‘Academia Nuts’ until he had safely taken early retirement.

Appointed to a lectureship at the University of Sydney in his 20s, the English-born Wilding encountered a strange new world, with figures such as Germaine Greer holding forth at morning tea about suckling her kitten in the bath. He also came across future Booker prize-winner Howard Jacobson, “bearded, hairy, leather-jacketed. “People would point at him as he walked through the quadrangle, an alien, a freak, a portent of things to come, Wilding writes in his latest memoir, ‘Growing Wild’.

There were fierce internecine academic wars and the English department was split between the followers of FR Leavis and the rest. Wilding recalls it all with wit and relish. The 1970s were a period of renewal for Australian writing and Wilding was in the forefront, penning his own exciting and innovative fiction and generously promoting the work of his contemporaries.

He recalls the trials and tribulations of ‘Tabloid Story’, the magazine he coedited that changed the face of the Australian short story. And he offers a vivid and affectionate account of how the University of Queensland Press emerged as a groundbreaking publisher of new fiction, introducing to an eager reading public not only Wilding but Peter Carey, Murray Bail and David Malouf.

In ‘Growing Wild’, Wilding vividly evokes the excitement of those years. He recounts stories of the readings held on the Balmain waterfront where the audience responded sometimes with raucous enthusiasm and at other times by pouring water over an annoying poet’s head. We encounter Robert Adamson buying a Mustang with his Literature Board grant — “not even a real horse that might have appealed to Adam Lindsay Gordon, but a mass-produced Ford”. There was Frank Moorhouse sleeping with a rifle under his bed — although Wilding omits to mention whether it was loaded. Wilding considers running away with Vicki Viidikas, “one of the great originals of Australian fiction, to South America, but doesn’t.

There was a ferment of literary experimentation. “I wanted to capture the freshness of ­immediate inspiration, the unrepressed utterance, he writes. Along with spontaneity, he explores the self-referentialism and allusion and intertextuality of postmodernism, “which was fun at the time but which you wouldn’t want to spend your life in. He moved on to what he called a renovated realism, and with ‘The Paraguayan Experiment’ — about radical William Lane’s utopian New Australia settlement — he embarked on a trio of “documentary” books, culminating in ‘Wild Bleak Bohemia’, which last year won the Colin Roderick Award and the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Nonfiction.

The judges of the 2015 PM’s prize — of which I was one — all remarked on his meticulous scholarly research. But no less significantly, Wilding’s immersion in Sydney’s bohemia in the 70s clearly informed his understanding of his subjects, writers Marcus Clarke, Adam Lindsay Gordon and Henry Kendall, in the Melbourne of a century before.

“I was soon taken down to the Newcastle Hotel. And there it was, Sydney’s old bohemia, still assembled at the bottom of George Street where ‘The Bulletin’ magazine and Angus & Robertson publishers used to have their offices, a direct continuity with Henry Lawson and Norman Lindsay and the 1890s, Wilding writes. The dominant tone was set by the Libertarians, an anarchist group that, to Wilding’s surprise, nonetheless had leaders. “They were all men. I much preferred the girls, as we still called them in those days.

Growing up in a “provincial, puritan and proletarian environment in England, he instantly responded to “the excitement of Sydney, the sun, warmth and sensuality that were to characterise his early stories. He never looked back, or at least not for long.

In ‘Growing Wild’, he passes briefly over the couple of years he taught in Birmingham, and resumes with the Ten Good Years of the 70s. He captures it all beautifully. But he also evokes the experience of an English country childhood, a vivid account of contact with nature through growing things, and a sense of exclusion maintained by pervasive class prejudice. He provides a vivid corrective to Laurie Lee’s classic ‘Cider with Rosie’. And his picture of Oxford in the 60s doesn’t resemble the Brideshead Revisited world.

This memoir is an important historical record of a seminal period in Australian writing, as well as a revealing insight into the life and mind of a writer. It is not a kiss-and-tell memoir — although if one reads it in conjunction with Don Graham’s ‘Michael Wilding and the Fiction of Instant Experience’ (Teneo Press, 2013) much will be made clear. And it is far from a misery memoir. It is both an entertaining and a visionary book on how to sustain a literary life and at the same time remain true to key intellectual values and beliefs.

As well as being a fine and versatile writer, Wilding has been one of the great encouragers of Australian nonfiction and fiction. Indeed, although I did not know it until recently, he and Jacobson were both instrumental in getting my Grafton Everest entertainments off the ground. I have Wilding to thank for persuading Hale & Iremonger to publish my first campus novel, ‘Pushed from the Wings’.

Not all writers are so generous to other writers, but let me return the favour by recommending this book and saying that as a scholar and writer, Wilding is extraordinarily prolific and deeply amusing. Reading Wilding’s memoir, it becomes clear that, in his campus satires, especially the raucous ‘Academia Nuts’, he is influenced by PG Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh. One could not have better literary mentors.

Ross Fitzgerald, emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University, is the author of 39 books,including the co-authored sexual/political satire ‘Going Out Backwards: A Grafton Everest Adventure’, published by Hybrid in Melbourne.

The Weekend Australian, April 9-10, 2016, review, Books, pp 20-21.

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