Reprint: The Life and Times of E. J. Brady by Clive Turnbull

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E. J. Brady, who died this week at 82, was one of the lost links with the days when the world was wide -- with the romantic, hopeful, acutely nationalistic Australia of the nineties, when Australian art, literature, and politics all had a flowering, never since repeated.

They were days of low living standards but high hearts. Out of the turmoil, industrial and social, Australians believed, would come a new Australia.

Round about the turn of the century we had all that is most notable in our life.

Broadly, our art was born with Roberts, Streeton, Conder, Mccubbin, and the rest; our literature with Lawson and Tom Collins, Paterson, Daley, Barbara Baynton; our political cast of thought with the Lanes, Brady, and their friends.

After that came a long period of nothing. The creative artists died, or went away, or lost their inspiration. The politicians, in many cases, renounced the visions of their youth, or lapsed into disillusion.

A few people like Brady remained as visible and vocal reminders of the spacious days, carrying with them always a sort of grandeur out of the past, a bigness, making us aware of something lost in our life.

Brady was a roamer in accord with the spirit of his time. As a boy he had gone to North America.

"I crossed it from Frisco to Washington, D.C.," he wrote to me years later, "when the cowboys were still bringing their herds up from Texas.

"The Old Man saw them with me, spreading over the Western plains, 20 years after he had seen the same plains covered with buffalo.

"In my time out West the train sweepers carried two guns slung low and bowie knives in their boots."

Back in Australia, Brady went to school again with Rod. Quinn and George Taylor, author of that delightful book of reminiscence "Those Were The Days."

A clerk in a wool store for a time, he was precipitated into the emerging Labor movement, when, on refusing to become a special constable in the great maritime strike, he was immediately sacked.

He became a "wild leader" of the strike, and at 22 he was editor of the "laborer's Bible," the "Australian Workman" weekly newspaper.

One day Lawson appeared at the "Workman" office; it was a sufficiently important occasion to adjourn for refreshment, leaving the office boy (afterwards Sir Frank Fox) in charge.

With long-sleevers of colonial beer at threepence a go, Brady and Henry discussed the Australian Republic; for those were the days when, in Brady's own words, they dreamed of "the establishment of a new Hellenic democracy."

Brady had a quaint and typical story about Lawson, incidentally. (Brady always had his feet on the ground, but Lawson was naive and childlike in many matters.)

Twenty years or more after the "Australian Workman" days the old friends had a reunion.

"You - old sinner, you ought to have been dead long ago!" Brady said.

"Why? Why did you think that?" asked Lawson.

"The way you knock yourself about."

Lawson pretended to think it over carefully.

"Beer saved my life," he said at last in a voice of simple conviction.


"Yeth, Ted - Beer."

And he added, after a further reflective pause, "If I'd been drinking hard tack I WOULD have been dead long ago."

The unhappy warrior

In the nineties, Brady roomed with Ernest Lane (still happily flourishing in Queensland), brother of William Lane, of New Australia celebrity.

But the inevitable fissions and disillusionments of radical parties occurred, and Brady gave practical politics away.

At heart he was unchanged.

After half a lifetime the old fires stirred in him. He wrote to his old mate Lane, "With armor dinted by many blows, bearing the marks of countless wounds, you are crying your warcry still, while a sardonic philosophy has led men like myself to nowhere in particular."

Round about this time Brady decided to return to Melbourne to see whether it was possible to kindle in others the visionary fires of the nineties.

It wasn't.

The fate of rebels

No reasonable person would suggest that Brady was a great poet.

But Brady was a good poet, and to understand and to appreciate him and his contemporaries, whether writers, painters, or politicians, you must consider all of them together in the environment of the nineties.

Brady's first book of verse, "The Ways of Many Waters," was published in 1899 by the "Bulletin"; most of its contents had appeared in the "Bulletin" and in the Sydney "Sunday Times."

These ballads of the sea were the best things Brady ever wrote; something went out with him when the "sardonic philosophy" of which he spoke replaced the earlier passionate faith.

"Lost and Given Over" and "Down in Honolulu" are probably the best known; my own feeling is that "I've Got Bad News" is, perhaps, the best.

This is the story of a sailor who, in time of industrial depression, threatens the master with a marlin spike, and is shot dead for his act:

   He laid his hand to a marlin-spike --
   Oh, he was a man to know!
   And the deck ran red where he fell and bled,
   But he shouldn't have acted so.

Here, it seems, are the beginnings of Brady's sardonic philosophy -- some rebels recant, but others who lay their hands to marlin-spikes are shot down. If they wanted to survive, in a world of injustice, they "shouldn't have acted so."

It is a general rule in Aus-tralia (the only, exception I can think of is the case of Dame Mary Gilmore) that creative writers are never honored by nation or by academic bodies whose distinctions are reserved for people who write about writing, who index it, or who collect it.

Officially, creative art of any kind is not respectable.  

Brady belonged to a generation when artists, very certainly, were not respectable in the eyes of bumbledom; they were poor, they drank too much beer, and sometimes they were political rebels.  

Some of them got over being rebels; some of them (such as Brady) never drank beer excessively anyway; but none of them ever got over being poor.  

Men like Henry Lawson were poor because they were essentially unworldly.  

Brady wasn't unworldly.  He said cynically that anyone who understood Marx could play the stock market successfully -- if he could be bothered.  

Dilemma of a nation

Brady's dilemma was not peculiar to him-self or to his generation.  It is Australia's dilemma.  

We no longer believe that the Hellenic democracy is imminent, practicable, or even possible.  

We can't recapture the raptures which moved Victor Daley and his friends, or the poetic vision of the young Streeton and his friend Conder.  

At the moment, officially, we don't seem to believe anything at all; unless it is that in some mysterious way we can be economically and spiritually saved by an infusion of Italians and West Germans.  

Fifty years without a national vision is a long time.  

It remains for us to find another.  

[Books to which I have specifically referred are: "Those Were the Days," by George A. Taylor (Sydney: Tyrrell's Ltd., 1918); "Henry Lawson," by His Mates (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1931) ; "Dawn to Dusk," by E. H. Lane (Brisbane, 1939) ; and "The Ways of Many Waters" by E. J. Brady (Sydney: The Bulletin Newspaper Co. Ltd., 1899).] 

First published in The Argus, 26 July 1952

[Thanks to the National Library of Australia's newspaper digitisation project for this piece.]

Author reference sites: Austlit, Australian Dictionary of Biography

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on February 11, 2011 8:31 AM.

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