An old point of ignition

27 Jul

Bruce Scates’ A New Australia (1997) was the point of ignition for me way back at the beginning of my postgraduate work. He was writing about a group of radical activists in Australia during the 1890s: socialists, anarchists and single taxers. What amazed me was how evocatively he rendered their culture and daily lives. He described the sorts of rooms in which they met: the kind of achingly dowdy places still attached to union premises; coffee palaces or meeting-rooms attached to churches; and venues such as David Andrade’s Anarchist Bookery, vegetarian restaurant attached. He wrote also of the socials and picnics they held, and of the way reading was so thrilling for them. I still remember his description of the anarchist bootmaker Chummy Fleming, who had been confined to bed broken down after years of labour, and who picked up a book which went off like a detonation once he began to read. Scates wrote of utopian novels handed over back fences, and from person to person in circulating libraries, and of the giddy round of lectures and classes available for the autodidacts of the day. I felt almost as I knew these people by the time I finished the book.

One of the things that snagged my interest as I read A New Australia was a list Scates included of the titles Andrade sold at his Bookery in Melbourne’s Russell Street. In 1892, Andrade advertised the range of books available: ‘Literature upon Socialism (both Communist, Collectivist and Anarchist), Freethought, Spiritualism, Theosophy, Mesmerism, Chiromancy, Phrenology, Vegetarianism, Antivivisection, Hydropathy, &c’.  What a gloriously eclectic list, I thought (my friend C, who collects lists and generates kooky ones of her own, would surely warm to that one). And its eclecticism sums up so much of radical culture at the time, which linked the Land Question to Socialism to Mesmerism and to whatever form of divination Chironmancy involves. In England, the same motley of interests was apparent in radical circles. What about Alfred Russel Wallace, for example, whose earnest wackiness I find immensely endearing, who mixed his scientific vocation with a passion for land nationalisation, anti-vivisection, the conservation of Epping Forest, and the electrifying hush of the seance? 

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