Pages Menu
Abbey's Bookshop
Plain engish Foundation
Categories Menu

Posted on 3 May 2016 in Non-Fiction |

MICHAEL WILDING Growing Wild. Reviewed by Inez Baranay

Tags: / / / / / / / / / /

growingwildGrowing Wild is the entertaining and instructive memoir of a writer and publisher who always took notice, and always took notes.

If you’re starting your writing and publishing life in 2016, can you quite imagine how different things were before the tsunami of technological change altered the way we read and find things to read? How it transformed not only the way publishing is carried out, but the very meaning of publishing – and so, inevitably, the kinds of things that are published? That’s one way into this entertaining, instructive memoir by veteran Australian writer and publisher Michael Wilding. It’s a memoir of one particular life and also of the milieus and movements it intersected with and animated: those of scholars, academics, poets, fiction writers, anarchists and activists, in various permutations.

The search for lost time through memory is expressed in writing, which, unlike memory, fixes events into a version. Growing Wild is the memory of someone who always took notice, and always took notes.

‘I thought being a writer was just being a writer,’ says Wilding in the early pages, and much of what follows is an account of how all the ways being a writer turn out to be a matter of so much else.

In part we have a story about how an Englishman becomes, sort of, an Australian, with an occasionally uneasy or interrogated split identity. ‘Australia had always been a presence in my childhood,’ Wilding says, making a claim for ‘a sort of Australianness as well as Englishness’. Questions of nationality and ethnicity must arise as identity is explored, and yet even more important is the question of class. ‘The experience of class discrimination is something that seared deeply into me,’ he says, noting that the subject is not so much literally taboo as dismissed; class discrimination is not mentioned in any of the current guides to non-discriminatory language and policies.

Outsiderness is a bitter, essential gift for a writer. Wilding made a treasure of his hyper-sensitivity to such issues, linked to a paranoid edge that might have started at a time when suspicion was only sensible, but that is to leap ahead.

In a familiar paradox, his working-class mother espoused an ‘immovable Toryism … an almost instinctive conservatism, an acceptance of the social order as it was’. It’s a phenomenon in the territory of mob support for reactionary right-wing radicalism by those in whose interests it surely cannot be. Anyway, Wilding’s becoming a socialist was a betrayal of his parents, whose conservatism extended to language; those early battles awoke his sense of the ‘duplicity of the English language’.

Eventually Wilding can be found at Oxford, that bastion of the Establishment, with a constant sense of ‘being an interloper, and intruder, and outsider’, like Thomas Hardy’s Jude. These sections, like much of this book, are rendered in prose that becomes quite lyrical in evoking the loss of the past:

Now there are no more lampreys and no more beavers  …  and not too many people swim in the Severn any more as it reverts to its muddy, sedgy banks, its quiet mysterious ways, flooded meadows, strange barges, secret channels revealed in my dreams and forgotten by the morning.

The 21-year-old Wilding arrived in Australia to take up a lectureship at the University of Sydney; he would spend the rest of his academic career there, retiring as Emeritus Professor.

From the earliest days, he was alert to the absurdities, petty grandstanding and competitiveness of academic politics, with its peculiar savagery, so very bitter because, as the oft-quoted quip has it, ‘the stakes are so low’. Wilding’s tone conveys a certain bemusement, allied to a sharp alertness to the utterances of people who take it all so seriously. His writing is characteristically acerbic, observant, economical, droll. The memoir in part serves as an overview of, to some an introduction to, Wilding’s fiction and features his fiction’s signature terse, witty dialogue.

The accounts of life at Sydney University from the tumultuous late 1960s until quite recently provide an intimate history of its flavour and its changes; one English department in one university standing for many in the disputes, the contentions and battles of the times: Leavisites and post-Leavisites, the classical and the modern, lectures or tutorials, how translated works are taught, and eventually post-structuralism, post-post-post-Derridaism and deconstruction, and why literature matters. And, oh dear, little did he know what this would lead to: how Creative Writing came to the university.

Illuminating as all this is, it should be read in conjunction with the elegantly savage novel Wilding published after his retirement, Academia Nuts. Fiction, finally, because it’s as if you can’t make this stuff up.

Besides his job in academia, there was, is, the long career in publishing. From the early days Wilding, with uncommon generosity, was instrumental in the initial publication of many writers. There was the publishing house begun with business partner Pat Woolley, Wild & Woolley (he’s not one to miss an opportunity to riff on his last name); there was the University of Queensland Press’s beginnings and how Wilding gave advertising copywriter Peter Carey his start; there’s the story of the heroic venture called Tabloid Story. At the time the short story form was ascendent. Wilding, Carmel Kelly and Frank Moorhouse invented Tabloid Story as a collection of new short stories that would be inserted into a range of periodicals, and so it came to pass; and in spite of all the contentions, vicissitudes, revolutionary tactics and snafus, finally 20 issues were produced as a supplement to publications as various as student newspapers, countercultural papers and the Establishment’s Bulletin, some of which had never published fiction. It was an exciting venture: new voices, a refusal to be constrained, a sense of a real, vibrant underground opposing everything repressive and reactionary. I was a young student then, eagerly reading this output, waiting for a time I could come out of the closet as a writer.

Decades later, when Wilding, still true to the principles of his publishing ethos, created new anthologies of short prose, I was one of the short-story writers included in good company in a couple of those, and one of the novelists included in a new imprint, Press On, created in collaboration with Australian Scholarly Publishing.

Long before all that I’d first encountered Wilding as a fixture in the network of anarchists, activists, philosophers, politicians, gamblers and drinkers known to itself, and eventually in a larger cultural context, as the Push. It was  ‘Sydney’s old bohemia’.  Wilding entered this world at the time activists were occupied with the protests over Australia’s involvement in the American war in Vietnam. That war ended, to the extent wars ever do, but the issue of censorship, in that era of extensive bans on literature, became a pivotal point of action.

‘The heady conformities of anarchism’ do not go unnoticed. Of what did this anarchism consist, what were its factions and disagreements?

Premature post-modernists, the libertarians were committed to pluralism with all the fervour of fanatical monotheists. No absolute values were recognised, authorities of church and state were derided, fascism and communism were deemed identical. All political action was seen as a fraud.

The New Left anarchists, on the other hand, were activists. ‘Complicity with authority had never appealed’ and Wilding opted for activism, enjoying this new world’s social and sexual opportunities, while remaining ever alert to paradox, self-deception and the elusiveness of true freedom.

Then, there was the world of the Balmain poets, who had begun to colonise the inner-west Sydney suburb, once a working-class area; now, in the usual way, the arrival of bohemia was a step toward gentrification by the wealthy. But then, in Balmain ‘everyone left you alone. Except the poets. They came round and read their poems to you over breakfast.’ Wilding encouraged poets, he says he learned from them to write with ‘timing and economy and brevity and rhythm’.

This was the era of the Balmain Poetry Readings, held in the vast waterside gardens of houses that hadn’t yet been renovated, when poets and part-time workers in the culture industry could live in big houses on Sydney Harbour. The poets could get raucous and disputatious and satisfying scandal and gossip arose from the reading nights. Every Australian poet of the time seems to be named here. Everyone was famous. At least in that world. Zoom out, and you see a tiny world within worlds and all on the edge of a vast dry continent half a planet away from the centres of poetry that provided models. Those were the happy times. Ten good years, says Wilding, is all anyone gets.

Then the good years were over. The 1980s brought the end of the counterculture; it was the time of selling out, surveillance and betrayal, of the rule of global corporate capitalism and global neo-liberalism, even in the worlds of publishing and writing, unbelievable as that seemed for too long to some of us. If you weren’t suspicious, you weren’t paying attention. The small presses and alternative publishing ventures became ever more essential for finding fresh writing created in a spirit of freedom.

Somehow Wilding also kept producing his lapidary, witty fiction, including the scintillating satire of the writing world, National Treasure, where a kind of Zen pessimism pervades the tone: nothing’s gonna turn out well, evil shit is the world’s driver, but you look at it all with a kind of intimate distance, a wry jadedness.

In Growing Wild the prose is sharp and pacy, while the content is dense with the accumulations of learning and experience: the experiments in writing, the Grecian sojourns, the useful drugs, the writing about Milton, the difficulties of either including or omitting people close to you in your memoirs; the credos about what literature had to be; many literary friendships and some fallings out; sardonic observations of the way to literary success (‘say nothing’).

You read this book in part for the insider stories of life in certain circles at a certain time, circles which must be connected to your own (and so it’s in part a memoir of your times, your tribe) or you read it for the amusement and knowledge it offers.

I hope an ebook version at a generally friendly cost will soon be available.

Michael Wilding Growing Wild Australian Scholarly Publishing 2016 PB 302pp $39.95

Inez Baranay’s most recent books are Local Time: A memoir of cities, friendships and the writing life and a novel set in Berlin, Ghosts Like Us.

You can buy this book from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.