“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.

By prestontowers

I had been a teacher observing politics and the media from the outside for some time. I became a political insider, didn't like it much, and hightailed it back to watching it again. And still loving teaching.

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

I hate how we no longer leave comments in comments boxes but scatter them to the four corners of social media, never to be coherent. And as you moved me enough to post it on my Facebook account no less I thought I’d share it with you:

Just finished reading Preston Tower’s account of what he calls ‘The Revolving Sydney Push’ and his observations as an outsider looking in. Revolving because he contends the original Push never came to shove (sorry, how could I not?): his memories of hanging out with various individuals of what he calls ‘the 1990s Push’ at Manning Bar and the Royal George made me realise that I was technically in its ‘outer circle’ for a time, during the extended adolescence of my postgrad days at Sydney Uni. And the digital waterholes of the ‘new Push’ only makes it all the more poignant because it makes me miss my late father-in-law all the more, who was definitely in the ‘outer circle’ of the original Push.

But I mostly like that he’s a good writer. A nice way to discover one who is also a fellow traveller. I commend him to you, Sydney and alumni.

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