Eight Things to Know About the New Sydney Push

There’s been some conversation about my very personal blog post about the idea of the Sydney Push and its successors.  I intended it to be a musing about the nature of cliques and what they are both capable of achieving, but also the personal impacts of such groups. It wasn’t meant to be particularly exhaustive or comprehensive.  The subsequent conversation has led to me considering some key points about a New Sydney Push, their place in history and the challenges they face when compared to those faced by the 50s / 60s Push.

1.The Challenges of the Era Have Changed Just a Touch

A feature of the original Sydney Push was that there were existing journalists and aspiring writers, and a host of others in between.  Those existing journalists would have had to write a whole range of boring pap in a tightly controlling, moralistic era. It was an era, for example, that the Chief Conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and Head of the Conservatorium, Eugene Goossens, was hounded out of the country for bringing into the country pornographic photos, rubber masks and sticks of incense.  It’s little wonder they were straining under the weight of the Menzies era and wanted a bit of libertarian freedom.

This era poses different issues, though some appear fairly similar. Conservatism and moralism remain, expressed through various channels such as the Daily Telegraph, various outrage-seeking talkback radio shows (which seems to have a hold on Sydney like in no other), the old-people-raging-at-clouds editorial team at The Australian as well as many of our politicians.  The continuing desire to collect metadata and somehow control the internet, for example, is something to rebel against.  There’s also a need to rail against the many privileged media pulpit spruikers like Miranda Devine, Paul Sheehan, Angela Shanahan, et al, who continue to wilfully misunderstand gender politics, domestic violence and issues relating to race and express that loudly. The difference now is though is that the voices of the young and the divergent have a place and are standing up to those with bully pulpits.

2. The Power and Privilege of the Old Guard

There’s solid reasons why the New Sydney Push spend a considerable amount of time talking negatively about the Baby Boomer generation.  For one, the continuing ownership of inner city housing and objection to the construction of new apartments is perceived as a scheme to protect their interests and shut Generation Y out of a foot in the door.  Plus, these days, there’s the new phenomenon of baby boomers investing in the flats of Sydney and becoming landlords – a bit of a shift from the supposed revolutionary urges of those who grew up in the 1960s. There’s also the Boomer domination of media and politics, with their sometimes outdated attitudes and opinions that grate. That opposition and tension is to be expected with any generational shift.

This reality poses a difficulty for the new Sydney Push – that is that they face the uncertainty of the future, whether they can continue to afford living in Sydney and not to be seen to “sell out” and adapt to industries and professions that might require actions at variance to passionately held – and fundamentally good – values and attitudes.

The original Sydney Push took a variety of paths, whether that was to go into full time journalism, lecturing or becoming expats. The latter path was the one taken by Clive James and Germaine Greer, who did take the fresh challenging air of the Push to their various stages.  They may have become figures that are the subject for derision since, but we can’t deny their brilliance and sharp wit.  It may be harder, however, for the current bright young things of Sydney to become successful expats in the mould of Greer and James.  The London that accepted the energy of James and Greer and helped to make them powerful voices has changed a fair amount since those days.

3. The advantages and disadvantages to being a close knit group in a social media age

Any good teacher will tell you that group work and close knit groups in general can have their advantages in terms of cultural production.  Having people around you know can be a help when developing ideas, treatments and the like. This is why groups like the original Sydney Push worked in terms of fuelling passionate discussion and formulating ideas. Eventually, that group split up socially and spread around the world, but the ideas that were sparked and moulded in the crucible of the Royal George went on and grew.  That’s a challenge for any group of people in their 20s seeking to find their place in the world.  It’s also inevitable that a group of intelligent, sharp witted friends will flock together and seek support and mateship.

4. New Media gives a more immediate Voice… but, there’s problems

One of the advantages for the New Sydney Push is that they are being provided with employment, forums and spaces in places that weren’t around for the original Push. That’s why we see their work, ideas and beliefs in a variety of publications.  We therefore see some great work from the new Push, along with the weak.  Sometimes having to produce a lot of work means that quality isn’t always assured – a commonality with any form of cultural production.  It shouldn’t be assumed at all that because the work is from Gen Y that it’s immediately to be suspect and not provided with respect.

There’s also a shift in terms of the requirements new media place on the members of the new Sydney Push.  There’s the continually frustrating word limits, but more deeply, there’s the requirement to be able to follow the buzz of the news cycle and produce work that is going to be read by as many as possible. This is not a revelation, of course, but it is a shift away from the free idea creation and conversations of the likes of James and Greer in the original Push.

That produces a conundrum for us reading the likes of Buzzfeed and Junkee. Many people may dislike some of the subject matter and decry the listicles of trivialities, but that is what is needed in the new media environment. We as the audience are only barely aware of the statistics behind the scenes – the stats that drive the pitch to advertisers.   What would perhaps be better for us as the observers to do is build filters that seek only what we need and put aside the rage that could be induced by the presence of some of the content being pumped out by members of the Push. After all, there’s a lot of quality, meaty content being provided by Push members in these new media outlets, which should not be forgotten.  I would also add that a lot of the satire coming from the makers of Backburner on SBS is also excellent. Ultimately, though, throwing the switch the vaudeville is a necessity for many.  After all, Clive James is better known to more people as the host of a show that laughed at Japanese game shows than as the writer of Cultural Amnesia.

That’s the reason I included in the first post a mention of a Halloween photo of members of the new Push ending up in New York Magazine.  Such photos and the unexpected buzz they create is a part of the new media environment, which is a pretty solid difference between this era and the 60s – in some ways anyway.  The idea that the original Push members were always serious and weighty while the new ones aren’t ever is pretty inaccurate. Think of the often puerile jokes in Oz Magazine and then in the films of the early 70s like Stork.  Using the Clive James example again, I don’t think he or the fans of his heavier tomes would have ever suspected he would become a pop culture icon who would also be romancing the ex-wife of Geoffrey Edelsten.  But he did, and he had fun in that life.  I think the so-called “Hennoween” photo was a funny moment, good for a chuckle and then people can move on, as is what happens in this era.

5. Yes, there’s going to be exclusions

I think some people may have misread my original post as being jealousy at being excluded from the new Sydney Push – understandable, as I was writing it from the perspective of someone reminiscing over his sadness tinged uni days where I felt excluded, even if I wasn’t as much as I perceived.  Anxiety is a bastard and is worse when you are away from your cocoon.  There’s memories that came when I wrote the post that I couldn’t repeat here.

Honestly, though, someone like me shouldn’t be included in any group like the Sydney Push. I’m too conservative, regional, establishment and old for such a group. My philosophies and approaches to ideas are too much shaped by compromised, pragmatic decisions I’ve had to make and continue to make.  The people in the Push are, for the most part, wishing to challenge what’s been, learn about the world, make their own mistakes and perhaps gain wisdom.  I represent much of what they are rebelling against and will continue to. I’m not that changeable in my core values and attitudes, even if I am able to have my mind changed by a good counter argument.

It is, however, inevitable that there will be exclusions from any clique of people who are younger than me who have a more serious objection to the actions and access of that group.  For me, I have realised over time that I have little desire to write paid opinion pieces or be part of that media world. I’m happy in my own professional and personal life and my blog posts and twitter life is a leisure activity only.

For others, though, I can understand the frustration they feel when they aren’t getting the paid opportunities and access that is being afforded the members of the new Sydney Push.  It’s also inevitable, therefore, that there will be criticism from people who feel as though others outside the Push should be provided with more opportunities.  How that is handled and dealt with, however, is a different story.  I don’t envy the job of editors and managers of new media outlets trying to obtain buzz and clicks through the employment of the right people. As we have seen, the people who seem to be the right people emerge on Twitter through their engagement with others and with content.  Time tells, however, how successful they continue to be – and that success can often be very fleeting and based on factors outside the control of the creators of content.

6. The Spaces for Connection are More Virtual than Physical

The original Sydney Push could only connect in person, at pubs, before the six o’clock swill. That’s not the case for the new Sydney Push. They do connect offline, but they also have good times online.  Plus, it means that the New Sydney Push is based in Sydney, but connects outwards. That’s a mix of the busy lives of Gen Y and the ease of online connection colliding in a mostly positive way.  The problem lays, however, with the public nature of the interactions. In the past, those outside such cliques didn’t see any of that bonding and therefore people couldn’t form an opinion about the form of that bonding. We didn’t see, for example, what kinds of tricks Clive James may have played. Or what Paddy McGuinness may have said about someone. Or Germaine Greer’s opinion about a particular issue of the day and how others responded to those.  We only hear about those things in second, third, fourth hand versions. But now, we can all see how the bonding happens with codes, conversations, subtweets.

I’ll admit here that I have expressed dislike towards the forms of bonding at times – and, looking back at it, I probably should have held back my tweets and just seen it for what it was – but then comment only if it becomes abusive or belittling to others. This is an approach I am currently working on adopting.   Difficulty is for everyone, though, is that the bonding patterns have become permanent records on social media and commented on from a variety of angles.

That’s tough for everyone in their 20s and younger.

7. Who Are These People?

The members of the new Sydney Push are from a fairly diverse background when compared to the original – and far fewer are connected to Sydney University (which is a good thing, frankly). My list isn’t exhaustive and I’d like to add to them if people can throw me some ideas. There’s a fair few members of the Push that I don’t really know all that well. But here goes as a start (and I apologise in advance to those I have excluded):

Guardian Writers (regular and occasional) – Adam Brereton, Osman Faruqi, J. R. Hennessy, Bridie Jabour, Liam Hogan, Dan Nolan, Erin Riley, Eleanor Robertson

SBS Writers and Presenters – The Feed Crew – Marc Fennell, Jeanette Francis, Andy Park (once upon a time), Patrick Abboud ; The Backburner writers (I know only the name of one of them – Jam Colley, sorry Backburner people, I do like what you do, but I don’t know your names)

Buzzfeeders – Mark Di Stefano, Rob Stott, Alex Lee, Mikey Nicholson, Lane Sainty, Jenna Guillaume, Mat Whitehead, Brad Esposito

Freelance Writers – Elle Hardy, Lauren Ingram, Kate Iselin, Rebecca Shaw, @courtwhip, Kate Doak

The Hungry Beast Crew (I still mourn the loss of one of my favourite shows of the last few years) – Kirsten Drysdale, Dan Ilic, Monique Schafter, Nicholas Hayden

Researchers – Trisha Jha

Junkee Central – Steph Harmon, Alex McKinnon

Fairfax Writers – Michael Koziol, Sheree Joseph

There’s others who are part of the group who aren’t writers in publications but instead contribute to the Twitter conversation.   Everyone’s favourite Public Transport App and Photoshop Image Maker, @rpy, for example and @swearyanthony

8. Let’s See What Happens

There’s those people who may believe that I am attempting to stop or blast those in the new Sydney Push with my blog posts. But I can no more stop anything happening on the internet than Xerxes could stop the sea with his whips.  Nor would I want to. There’s a lot of interesting and engaging stuff coming from members of the new Sydney Push. I am making observations from my perspective and making historical parallels.  When I was at uni, my focus became the Australia of the 1950s – 60s – especially the Eugene Goossens scandal and the activities of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra of that time – and the era still fascinates me.  The comparisons I made are, however, at best, broad brushstroke comparisons and it was a surmising about the relationship of the new and emerging writers and new media forms.

I’m still watching and reading what emerges from this pool of young Sydney based writers – and those from other cities – and also a bit curious as to what happens next. Which one is going to be the next Clive James? Taking things back to the tone of the first post, I went to uni with a brilliantly talented woman who idolised James and had a burning desire to write and go overseas.  She followed her dream and ended up teaching at Princeton, which is where I think she still is. We caught up once and compared notes on students we taught and had some surprising things in common. But her world will always be more dazzling than mine, and fair enough.  I would not have a clue how to be and what to do in that world. I sometimes wonder if one day she’ll emerge as a pop culture icon or writing brilliant books. There’s still time – as there is for the members of the new Push.

There’s also the question – who will end up as Paddy McGuinness? I’m not sure people would be necessarily lining up for that fate.

There remains, though, the distinct possibility that I am completely wrong and that there isn’t a “New Sydney Push” and this is just a group of people who write for new media and hang around with each other because they are mates.  There always remains that distinct possibility for anything I write.  Whatever is the case, though, they will remain being fascinating to watch.

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“Hierarchical but anti-elitism; intensely political but disinclined to agitate for change” – The Revolving Sydney Push

There was a time when I went to the University of Sydney and did a Bachelor of Arts. It was a while ago now – 25 years now, but I was, like any of us from the outer reaches of greater Sydney going on long train journeys and then having to get home for dinner, was aware of an ever repeating phenomenon, the Revolving Sydney Push. That is, the existence of a clique of students, all living close to the uni, rolling in and out of classes, but never really seeming to care too much about what was going on. They hated authority and anyone who had even a hint of conservatism. That was me to a considerable extent, with my stolid middle class, small business Liberal voting background. Though the Liberals on campus didn’t impress me with their Joe Hockey style of business centric boorishness.  To me, they weren’t all that much different to the Trots on campus, who were similarly arrogant and dismissive of a variation of opinion with consensus views.

The original Sydney Push was a group of students who went to Sydney Uni in the 1950s and early 1960s who similarly hated conservatives and “moralism”. They were also well known for their parties, their libertarianism and attitudes to politics.  This history from Elizabeth Farrelly in 2009 gives a comprehensive picture of the Push of that time.   Some of the tales of that Push provide us with an image of the types of activities and beliefs that wouldn’t be out of place today:

The Push wasn’t just about sex. As Fink bluntly concedes, “there was a lot of that” but even more talking about it. It wasn’t exclusively young, either, though it was absolutely a young people’s movement. Fuelled by a heady mix of ideas, talk and alcohol (there was some speed but marijuana was still a good decade away) as well as fornication, it was a conscious break with authority and a bid for freedom, united by a common foe. What foe? Well, authority, especially hypocritical authority, including moralism, elitism, sexism, violence, religion, careerism, censorship and the hypocrisy of their use by a paternalistic state.

As with any clique, they had their own ways of communicating and using social codes in terms of meeting up:

It was a social dance choreographed not just without mobiles but, because most people lived in tiny rented flats, largely without landlines. So each evening, after work or lectures, there’d be this mad rush downtown, by tram, by bus or on foot. If you weren’t in by 6, when the pubs closed, it meant social death for the evening or even the weekend. For the quick, though, there was guaranteed congeniality just about any night of the week. After the pub or cafe, they’d eat at The Greeks or The Italians in Castlereagh Street, or Vadim’s in Challis Avenue, then head off to the party du soir.

The most famous meeting place for the Push, however, was the back room of the Royal George – these days, the Slip Inn. (Yes, the place to meet a Prince). It was there that the fame and ideas of the Push were formed. It also was the setting for, in Farrelly’s description, a development spot for people finding their way in the world, but seemingly filled with contradictions:

You can see the Push as a movement that was strongly moral yet anti-moralism; clearly hierarchical but anti-elitism; intensely political but disinclined to agitate for change; intensely verbal but leaving little written evidence; avowedly egalitarian but inclined to treat women as sexual conveniences; overwhelmingly heterosexual but with a hidden homoerotic competitiveness between the main men.

It was a cool group with an allure that shone outside its pub meetings and house parties. One person who commented on that allure was the outsider Bob Ellis, who constructed this deathless phrase of the Outsider Looking In, as quoted from the account of the Push by James Franklin:

`To an outsider, and many of us were outside the Push, unable because of our tentative personalities to break through the strong, royal curtain into their loving affections, they loomed as homeric giants, whose life was one long bland adventure, night after night, party after party, race meeting after poker session and tragic love after tragic love, following only the minute’s need or desire, following it for its own sake, with no ulterior goal in view, following their own soul’s odyssey through all its incarnations with granite amusement, delivering their papers on sex and death and Reich and Christ and Phar Lap, arguing and drinking far into the night, taking round the hat for incidental abortions, offering no rebuff to anyone who showed up at midnight and wanted to sleep on the floor, but calmly putting up with him for as long as he wanted to stay, conducting their ritual contests, inventing their savage games, and having their parties, parties, parties, all the parties I missed.’

I, too, had a similarly tentative personality to Ellis and therefore thought of the 90s Sydney Push types in the same way as Ellis thought of his.  I was a far-too-serious student from the Lower Blue Mountains who didn’t quite understand the groups, their codes, their phrases. I had to get home for dinner because I was still a Good Boy who was scared of a father who never hit me but still ensured that I got home by 6 or 7, depending on when lectures ended.  Even when I joined societies in my final years, I joined the Celtic Society – which wasn’t cool – and the Labor Club, which was filled with future staffers for Left Wing Labor MPs.

The 1950s Push had their favourite teachers at uni and so did the 1990 version. One of them in History was the very cool and funky Newtown resident Mr. Richard White (the fact he wasn’t a Doctor added to the cool) as opposed to the perceived conservative Associate Professor Richard Waterhouse. Waterhouse was very aware of that status, stopping to tell students during lectures that whenever tasty trivial bon mots were dropped, that they could take them to their “Balmain Dinner Parties”.  He often spoke of his status of a Denistone outsider.

Unsurprisingly, in retrospect, I was a huge Waterhouse fan.

Having said all that, the 1990s Push wasn’t as big or as united as the original version. It was probably also more a perception to me perhaps than an actual group. The students from that era, however, have gone on to become leaders of thinking and society. Adam Spencer is one person who comes to mind, who was at uni not long before me. The Chaser group were there a couple of years after me – except their sometime member Charles Firth, who I remember drinking with on an SRC election night.  I also met his sister Verity that night, who was as friendly as she comes across these days. Both wouldn’t have remembered much about me.  And that’s the way I liked it at the time. I was some bloke from the Mountains, going to uni, getting my degree and then going back into the suburbs to teach high school students and get married. I was being urged at the time by my classmates that I should ditch that future and move into the inner city, be a part of that world. It was tempting, but my tentative personality got in the way.  That personality was also why I got married badly, with the wrong person not all that long after graduating. Tentative, self doubting and caught between two worlds.   I have changed a bit since then in terms of my personality – no longer as tentative, as some would perceive – but in person I am much more tentative than I come across as on Twitter.  I have learnt, though, to be more comfortable with who I am and also to be less tentative with those I respect, care for and love. Takes a while, that and socially, being somewhere like the Sydney Uni of the early 90s was entirely the wrong place for me to be.  Academically, however, it was entirely the right place for me.  When Waterhouse told me that my Honours thesis was one of the best he’d ever read, that was good enough for me.

There’s a new version of the Sydney Push now, but this time the back room of the Royal George has been replaced by Twitter and we can see it all if we want to.   The modern versions of Clive James, Germaine Greer, Paddy McGuinness and Richard Neville all being loudly anti-establishment, pro or anti whatever issue is being discussed today, libertarian and the rest.  Still perhaps featuring what Barry Humphries said of the original Sydney Push:

“a fraternity of middle-class desperates, journalists, drop-out academics, gamblers and poets manques and their doxies.”

Then again, Barry Humphries was always a bit too acerbic and conservative. It’s possibly better to be someone like Sydney Push original Wendy Bacon, pushing against refugee policy and censorship than doing ads for ice-cream and News Limited.

The members of the new Sydney Push is still interested in ideas, in being someone, in pushing new ways to be, to challenge, to write.   The mediums they are using is different – more commercial, advertising driven portals like Junkee and Buzzfeed, or that older philanthropic home the Guardian – than being radicals and starting daring publications like the Oz Magazine. They also have the potential to be as well known / notorious / famous as the original Push.   And outside their constructed strong, royal curtains will remain us, the readers, looking on curiously at what this new Push will be and what it will produce. Maybe this piece in the NY Magazine about a “Halloween Prank” involving members of the new Sydney Push sets the tone for their legacy – or maybe not.  It’s a bit different to the achievements of Clive James and other ex-Push members overseas.