When I was last at Mitchell Library, I went back to an 1870s newspaper I’d encountered briefly before: the Truth. What a nasty little paper. It’s hard to imagine an offering more different in tone and content to the upstanding goldfield-town papers I’ve been reading from the same period (papers such as the Ballarat Courier and the Mount Alexander Mail). The latter wrote consistently of temperance meetings and school concerts, exuding throughout the earnest fragrance of shoe-polish and altar flowers. The Truth was an altogether more malodorous creature, reeking of the gutters and hotels of Sydney’s CTB (central theatrical district). Its proprietors were W Drysdale and Bob Avery, neither of whom I’ve come across before.
Most of the Truth‘s copy seems to have been written by Avery: a grubby, misogynistic anti-semite, who wrote (among other things) of punching a Jew in a late-night cafe, and being rebuffed by ‘prudish’ barmaids. Not surprisingly, given his penchant for theatres and nightlife, Avery was as contemptuous of provincial society as he was of conventional morality. The sanctimony of the events reported in the Ballarat Courier would have drawn either a snort or tirade from this self-proclaimed provocateur. Witness his attack on a ‘puny country rag’ (the Cumberland Times) which dared to criticise the Truth:
‘As a general rule, I do not trouble to jump on worms, but the cool effrontery of the scurrilous newspaper abortion that vomits its filth and nonsense upon the few residents of the Cumberland district, tempts me to mildly rebuke a drivelling, struggling journal that generally only merits a pitying smile’.
The Truth gives us a window into Sydney’s seamy side in the 1870s, delivered in a darker voice (it seems) than the muckraking papers Kirsten McKenzie writes about: the Satirist and the Omnibus, published in mid-century Sydney. Bob Avery’s editorials were unashamedly urban in their character and mode of expression – not for him the elevation of bush life or rural simplicity that would later characterise Australian bohemian writing. ‘I don’t often hanker for mild enjoyments – something fierce and thrilling usually suits me better’, he wrote. Like the 1890s bohemians, however, the city life he depicted was modelled very obviously on overseas examples: on the New York depicted in James Gordon Bennett-style sensational journalism, and the London of the slum exposé.