The art of keeping friends at a distance
At a time of war and transition, we still strive to “talk poetry”,’ wrote Clem Christesen in his editor’s introduction to the first issue of Meanjin Papers in 1940.1 His firm belief in the importance of keeping Australia’s intellectual and aesthetic culture alive, even during wartime, would continue to be his central concern. Encouraging free discussion of art, literature and contemporary social problems, his only criterion for publication was what he called ‘quality’.
One of the first established writers to contact Christesen was Nettie Palmer, who, with her husband Vance, would become a strong supporter of Meanjin. Later, with their daughters Aileen and Helen, they would also become close friends of Clem and his Russian-born wife, Nina. Christesen eventually honoured the contributions of Nettie and Vance Palmer in a tribute issue of Meanjin in 1959, a rare themed issue during his editorship.2
As well as contributing articles, Nettie and Vance became important sources of subscribers and contributors to the magazine. In 1942 Clem suggested to Nettie that her daughter Aileen, given her experience with both war and literature, might make a contribution for the magazine. In response, Nettie reported that ‘Aileen, buried in an ARP station, at Stepney, said she had nothing to send Meanjin unfortunately’.3 Aileen had spent nearly two years as an interpreter for the medical units on the frontlines of the Spanish Civil War and was at the time driving ambulances in London during the Second World War.
By the time Nettie wrote to Clem in 1942, he had fallen out with the other three writers who had been involved in the first issue of Meanjin Papers and was feeling despondent. Nettie urged him to continue the venture, entreating him to believe that he had ‘the gifts and approach of a sort of liaison officer in literary life’. Clem, who saw himself as a writer as well as a magazine editor, took offence at that suggestion and Nettie hastily tried to make amends, if a little clumsily: ‘When I called you a liaison officer, I meant it constructively. It’s the sort of job I mostly do myself; and I think Australia needs such people more than it needs individual writers.’4 Clem Christesen would achieve a formidable reputation for irascibility during his long editorship of Meanjin and, while many of his relationships with his friends were enduring, they were also testy.
Almost from the outset, Clem faced two problems that would beset him for decades. One was the difficulty of acquiring enough funds to keep the magazine afloat. An invitation to move Meanjin from Brisbane to Melbourne by members of the University of Melbourne’s Extension Board in 1944 proved to be both a lifeline and a continual headache. Christesen brought the journal to Melbourne in 1945, with the university offering to support and house it while he still held editorial responsibility. The arrangement was never properly established legally, creating an ambiguous position with the University of Melbourne and causing logistical and financial problems that continue to plague Meanjin into the twenty-first century. And the funding concerns did not diminish. Writing to A.D. Hope in 1955, Christesen said: ‘I don’t at all like this constant belly-aching, this yearly gripe. But if I hadn’t done so, there would be no Meanjin today.’5
Christesen believed in the connection between literature and politics but he did not align himself directly with a political party or ideological position. He referred often to his benchmark of quality, wanting eclecticism to be a distinguishing mark of his magazine—for it to be a ‘broad church’, if you like. In her history of Meanjin’s first 25 years, Lynne Strahan refuted any notion that Clem’s politics was partisan or consistent, believing that ‘Christesen was a loner, a romantic and moralist who managed to sustain simultaneously an intellectual passion for liberalism and an emotional commitment to democratic socialism’.6 In 1955 he wrote, ‘Literature and life, the reflection of and reflection on society—that is my aim.’7 But his magazine was always perceived to be aligned with the left and accusations that he was a communist dogged him for years, coming to a head when the Cold War was intensifying during the 1950s. Countering these charges was the other problem that beset his editorship and caused ructions even with his good friends.
Charges of communist influence and indoctrination of students had been first made against the University of Melbourne in the 1930s.When Aileen Palmer started her Bachelor of Arts degree there in 1932 she immediately joined the Labour Club, which contained a nucleus of communists including Vance and Nettie’s old friend Guido Baracchi, who had re-enrolled as a student in 1931, at the age of 44. Aileen, who had known Baracchi since childhood, regarded him as an honorary ‘uncle’. The first issue of the Labour Club magazine Proletariat was brought out in 1931; it was also the year Aileen joined the CPA, just after her seventeenth birthday in April. The Labour Club was constantly in conflict with the more conservative campus elements, including the university magazine Farrago, the editors of which Aileen declared to be fascists. Simmering enmities came to the boil in the month she joined the party, culminating in the dunking in the university lake of one of the more flamboyant members of the Labour Club, Sam White, by a gang of right-wingers led by Edward Dunlop (later ‘Weary’ of war hero fame).
After Aileen completed her university degree with First Class Honours in French Language and Literature in 1935, she accompanied her parents and sister Helen to London and eventually found herself, with Vance and Nettie, in Barcelona in July 1936 at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Reluctantly, she returned to England with her parents on a warship that was evacuating British citizens, but went back to Spain almost immediately. Fluent in French and German and with a working knowledge of Spanish and Catalan, Aileen Palmer became part of the first British medical unit sent to support the Republican government against General Franco’s rebels, as secretary and interpreter. In 1945 she returned to Australia (again reluctantly) after nearly a decade of working in war zones, summoned by Helen, who cabled that their mother was ill and intimating that it was Aileen’s turn to play the part of dutiful daughter.
Soon after her return to Melbourne, Aileen gave a talk entitled ‘Poets of Libera-tion’ at the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA).8 In it she discussed the work of three left-wing poets—Louis Aragon, John Cornford and John Manifold—bringing together her twin passions of art and activism and arguing for a ‘poetry of conscience’ that would take the progressive movements of the time as the basis for its inspiration. Aileen had started writing poetry in England and had one poem published in the June 1938 issue of a small, new left-wing magazine called Poetry and the People. The magazine’s opening issues that year had published articles by Australians John Manifold and Jack Lindsay extolling the ballad tradition. Aileen was to identify strongly with the way Manifold positioned his work as non-bourgeois—using vernacular not considered suitable for poetry and writing in the ballad style. The rousing rhythm of her poem ‘Thaelmann Battalion’ mimics the marching feet of the German exiles on the Aragon front in Spain, marching not for Nazi Germany but for the Republican cause. It begins:
This is our moment.
You can hear us singing
Where the earth is brittle under the southern sun
Watch us marching in serried ranks to the death that is our homage
To the unbroken spirit of our dishonoured country.
The last verse with its chilling reference to Hitler (and written before the declaration of the Second World War) echoes the first, describing a part of Spain that reminded Aileen of the Australian landscape:
Here we have shown to the world our country’s other face;
And not the face of the hangman with the sprouting forelock
But the face of the young men who march together singing
Through southern plains where the clay is brittle under the sun.9
On her return, Aileen also embarked on a study of Russian, taking Russian I and Russian II in 1946 and 1947 as single subjects in the newly formed Russian Language and Literature course at the University of Melbourne, which Nina Christesen devised and taught. Although they were friends of Vance and Nettie’s, Nina and Clem were only four years older than Aileen and would become important figures in her life back in Australia. She often went to stay with them at Stanhope, their house in Eltham. Aileen passed Russian with Second Class Honours and her study of the language features in her ASIO file, perhaps not surprisingly given her family’s reputation as pink-tinged if not ‘red’ in those early days of the Cold War.
Understandably, Aileen found it difficult to settle back into life in Australia, writing in her diary soon after her return: ‘I feel this is after all a foreign country I’ve got to start learning all over again. Coming home—I’ll always be a foreigner’.10 Family friends and acquaintances were keen to hear about Aileen’s wartime experiences, but what could she say to ‘these comfortable, cushioned people’? Some of her university friends had married and moved to the suburbs. Feeling numb and detached, she agreed, at 30 years old, to move back into the family home with her parents. They were generous, of course, encouraging her to write. But she watched it all, feeling as though she was encased behind a wall of glass and finding some relief in the oblivion of alcohol. Just over two years later, in March 1948, when, as she wrote, the ‘unfreeze’ began to set in and she stayed up late writing—smoking and taking benzedrines to keep herself awake—she suffered her first ‘breakdown’.
Calling on their psychiatrist friend Dr Reg Ellery for help, Vance and Nettie managed to get Aileen admitted to Alençon, the private psychopathic hospital he had founded in Malvern. For three months Aileen was subjected to insulin coma therapy (a shock therapy Ellery had pioneered in Australia), early electro-convulsive therapy (administered without sedation) and a regime of new drugs. While she was no doubt suffering from what we would today term PTSD after her war experience, Aileen was also deeply troubled by the postwar atmosphere, the demonisation of communism and the beginnings of the Cold War.
Less than two weeks after Aileen was forcibly escorted to hospital she began writing an extraordinary manuscript she called ‘20th Century Pilgrim’. ‘This may be the title,’ she writes at the beginning. ‘It will do for now. And this is a sort of allegory—if you want to call it that—only most of it really happened, to some people, somewhere, in the 20th century.’11 The manuscript ranges from descriptions of the protagonist Pilgrim’s daily life among the Magicians (hospital doctors) and Serfs (nurses) to convoluted discussions of Fossils, Owls and Dogs, to the state of the ‘Intelligentsia’ in a postwar world, to a debunking of ‘pseudo-Shelley’ English poet Stephen Spender, whom Aileen had met when she was in Spain. A dense, cryptic, repetitive, incomplete and often confusing document, ‘20th Century Pilgrim’ is also fascinating—full of anger, sardonic humour and painful self-reflection.
The central theme of the manuscript concerns the position (and composition) of the intelligentsia in a postwar world now gripped by the beginnings of the Cold War and the fear of nuclear war. Pilgrim is no longer able to read newspapers, encoded here as the ‘Poison’. The university she attended becomes the ‘Founts of Poison’, though she qualifies the term: ‘Yes, it doesn’t have to be Poison you drink up there. And they don’t all dish out Poison, the people who work there. They mostly do, though—the way they just keep drinking each other’s same kind of Poison year after year, and the Poison of long-dead people.’
Pilgrim later discourses on a figure she calls the Dog: ‘one rather sad dog … who controls (or tries to) a semi-open space, though he lets all sorts of Owls and other strange birds just litter it up’. She turns to discussing him because this Dog has just rejected a poem by her sister ‘Sensible’ as he does not want to print poems about the war and her sister’s begins: ‘Barbed-wire and gun-sites guard our beaches now’ (in fact, an unpublished poem by Helen called ‘Caloundra in War-time’). The Dog is undoubtedly Clem Christesen and the ‘semi-open space’ Meanjin: ‘The Dog has fought hard for that Semi-Open Space, don’t let’s forget that, though you get a bit sick of it sometimes, if you listen a bit too much to the Dog and his troubles, when he’s just in the whining mood. (He looks better in other moods.)’ Pilgrim then moves on to the Dog’s choice of articles to publish:
I never know whether he goes round digging up Fossils, or whether they just happen to throw their [Bones] at him; but he does like living up there among the Fossils, so he’s just about bound to run into them everywhere, whenever he moves,—and he does like Ready-Chewed Bones.
‘Ready-Chewed Bones’ included articles reprinted from overseas journals, and the one Pilgrim took most umbrage against was an article Christesen had published in Meanjin in 1945, reprinted from the English journal Horizon.12 Aileen, in a rare instance, names both title and author:
‘The Intelligentsia.’ Chewed up and spewed by a Master-Poisoner, one Arthur Koestler, who’s living in England now. Filled up a whole good acre of his precious Semi-Open Space, all Poison, the wickedest kind. And that got the Dog a bad name, if anything did.
In the article, Koestler, a former communist whose anti-communist novel Darkness at Noon had been published in 1940, outlines his thesis, in the most inflammatory language, on the decay into irrelevance of Western intelligentsia after the collapse of ‘the revolutionary movement’ and its descent into neurosis.
Koestler’s article caused ripples in Australia when it appeared in Meanjin. Kurt Baier from the Philosophy Department at the university had offered a rebuttal in New Masses, which Christesen reprinted in a subsequent issue of Meanjin,13 and a fierce rejoinder from Vance and Nettie’s old friend and Aileen’s mentor Katharine Susannah Prichard in the next issue was titled ‘Koestler, the Irresponsible’.14 The article was discussed by Melbourne groups such as Realist Writers, to which Aileen belonged. Deirdre Moore, one of its members, relates in her memoirs the impact Koestler, one of the severest critics of Socialist Realism, had on the group and the heated discussions that ensued. Moore also relates how Aileen Palmer herself contributed to the determination of these young activists to resist oppression by bringing with her ‘wonderful Louis Aragon and [Paul] Eluard poems’ when she returned from Europe in 1945.
The insecure relationship of Meanjin with the University of Melbourne may well have led Christesen to publish more academic articles than he might otherwise have done, but he was also highly sensitive, according to Judith Wright, who worked on Meanjin Papers in its early days in Brisbane, about his own lack of academic qualifications.15 The publication of Koestler’s article also coincided with the ramping up of charges of communist influence and indoctrination at the university during the 1940s. In 1944 Tom Hollway, Liberal Party leader and later premier of Victoria, accused it of being ‘a hot-bed of communism’.16 Of course, Christesen may also have simply been advancing his desire for Meanjin to reflect the breadth of contemporary thinking, making it a broad political church.
Curiously, a long letter by Aileen to Clem that survives in the Meanjin archive, written at almost exactly the same time as she was penning ‘20th Century Pilgrim’, offers a more favourable view of the magazine. It begins:
Lying in bed (or pacing round my room in hospital, as the case may be) I’ve been thinking on and off what a wonderful magazine Meanjin is and what a good job you have done holding on to it all this time. I hope you will be able to keep it going, as long as possible, in some form: firstly, because it looks as though things may get much tougher in Victoria particularly in the immediate future, and any bit of ‘semi-open’ space where a few non-reactionary words can find root may be more seriously required than ever …
Later in this rambling letter, she raises the issue of her own poetry:
I may send you some of the verse I’ve been writing in here (as a relief, mainly, from minor irritations). I’ll show some to Nina, probably, when she comes today, as I’ve been told she can, and select those which are the least obviously ‘political’ …17
It is not clear whether she did send Clem any of the poems she wrote during this period but some, such as ‘In Hospital’, were published later. This sonnet (which references Baudelaire’s ‘Le Voyage’ and Rimbaud’s ‘Le Bateau ivre’) alludes to her fear at being incarcerated but is also a plea for strength:
There are more peaceful places—ships perhaps,
whose timbers are well built to take the strain
of dashing winds and waves that wash like rain
on crowded decks and bulwarks … You can see
If now I think of ships it is that here
they leap into my mind when, restless still
(though knowing while I have to stay I will
no storm could break me now) I sometimes fear
How ships on other oceans madly dance
like Baudelaire’s hull, tossed on a monstrous sea,
boundless, he thought, or Rimbaud, leaving France—
as though his drunken ship could travel free
Of Europe’s ancient fetters. Let me think
of some frail ships no storm can break nor sink.18
In early 1949, when Aileen was still recovering from the effects of her three-month hospital incarceration, Clem wrote to Nettie to ask her if Aileen could reply to an unfavourable review of Meanjin in the university’s magazine Farrago:
—by writing, perhaps, a general survey of Meanjin: partly a critical assessment and partly an interview with me. I could provide her with much material. The editor, Alan Griffiths, offered to do an interview, as a counter to Vincent Buckley’s review; but I find he has never read a copy of Meanjin. Aileen could use initials or a pen-name if she wished. I know of nobody else who could do the job who is sufficiently familiar with the magazine. No need to be ‘kind’, but such an article should be at least better informed.19
Whether Nettie passed on Clem’s request to Aileen is not known, but no reply to Buckley’s review eventuated. Christesen, faithful to his benchmark of quality, later published contributions by the Catholic poet and in 1969 commissioned three major articles on Buckley’s work.
Aileen Palmer and Clem Christesen maintained a testy relationship over the ensuing decades of his editorship. When Clem was preparing his tribute to Vance and Nettie Palmer for the second issue of Meanjin for 1959, he leant heavily on Aileen for much of the preparation, giving her a list of seven ‘matters’ he would like her to pursue, including chasing up copies of scripts and radio plays by Vance for contributors’ articles, suggesting the arrangement of contents, preparing a bibliography and keeping some of the contributors ‘up to the mark’.20 Aileen followed up on his suggestions but was not given any acknowledgement in the published issue. Sadly, Vance did not live to see it as he died suddenly of a heart attack just before publication. Clem was present when Vance turned to stoke the fire at home and collapsed; in his editorial ‘Comment’ to the tribute issue he wrote of the ‘profound shock’ he felt: ‘I personally have lost a dear friend and mentor.’21
In early 1960 Aileen wrote to Clem asking him whether he was still considering publishing an article she had submitted.22 She suggested that, since his financial situation had improved with a bequest, it might now be possible. Called ‘1914’, the article was written by Nettie about the assassination of French socialist leader Jean Jaurès and Aileen said that she and Helen were concerned that their mother should feel she was still being productive. Clem’s reply included a particularly cranky response to the question of finance:
Since you mention financial difficulties, I might add that they continue … I don’t think that you have ever remotely understood how this journal has been published, nor have you been sufficiently interested to find out. To you the journal has had little value, as you have pointed out on numerous occasions. Perhaps you have changed your attitude during the last few months. I should be happy to think so.23
He complained that the article was too long and that Aileen might consider making cuts to it, but it was never published.
Four years after Nettie’s death in 1964 Aileen was still writing to Clem about the possibility of his publishing some of her own poems.24 Clem replied: ‘As for your own poetry—I’ve read several pieces of yours which I liked very much indeed, but the poems you’ve sent me were not good enough, in my opinion, to warrant publication in Meanjin Quarterly.’25 His criterion was, as ever, his assessment of a contribution’s quality.
Aileen Palmer’s poems and articles were published in journals such as Southerly, Overland and Realist Writer. Only one of her poems was published in Meanjin— an anti-nuclear poem titled ‘Song from a Distant Epoch’—but that was accepted in 1957 when Geoffrey Serle was editing the journal temporarily.26 In 1964, Stephen Murray-Smith, editor of the avowedly left-wing journal Overland, published a small volume of Aileen Palmer’s poems and translations (in four languages) entitled World without Strangers? When she was preparing her poems for the collection, Aileen gave her translation of Alexander Pushkin’s ‘This Monu-ment’ to Nina Christesen for her approval, which she received, but it seems Clem Christesen never bestowed his approval on her writing.27
- Cited in John McLaren, ‘Time to Dream’, Meanjin, no. 1, 2004, p. 115.
- Meanjin, no. 2, 1959.
- NP to CC, 29 October 1942, Meanjin Archive, Baillieu Library, University of Melbourne.
- NP to CC, 16 November 1942.
- CC to A.D. Hope, cited in Jane Ellen, ‘Cold Wars and Culture Wars’, Meanjin, no. 1, 2004, p. 146.
- Lynne Strahan, Just City and the Mirrors: Meanjin Quarterly and the Intellectual Front, 1940–1965, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1984, p. 38.
- CC to Professor Arthur Fox, 7 June 1955, cited in Jane Ellen, ‘Cold Wars and Culture Wars’, p. 145.
- Aileen Palmer Papers, NLA MS6759, Box 7/ 4/22.
- Reprinted in Jim Jump (ed.), Poems from Spain, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 2006, pp. 66–7.
- Diary, 27 October 1945, Aileen Palmer Papers, NLA MS6759 Box 6/4/17.
- ‘20th Century Pilgrim’, April 1948, Aileen Palmer Papers, MS6759, Box 7. There is no consistent pagination in this document.
- Arthur Koestler, ‘The Intelligentsia’, Meanjin, no. 1, 1945, p. 39.
- Kurt Baier, ‘The Changing Role of the Intelligentsia’, Meanjin, no. 2, 1945, p. 113.
- Katharine Susannah Prichard, ‘Koestler, the Irresponsible’, Meanjin, no. 3, 1945, p. 176.
- Judith Armstrong, The Christesen Romance, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1996, p. 55.
- Fay Woodhouse, ‘Pink Pundits’, Meanjin, no. 1, 2004, p. 134.
- AP to CC, 21 April 1948, Meanjin Archive, Baillieu Library, University of Melbourne.
- Aileen Palmer, Dear Life, by ‘Caliban’, Artprint, Melbourne, 1957, p. 11.
- CC to NP, 16 March 1949, Meanjin Archive.
- CC to NP, 3 March 1959.
- Meanjin, no. 2, 1959, p. 132.
- AP to CC, 5 March 1960.
- CC to AP, 10 March 1960.
- AP to CC, 4 March 1968.