Little mag David v uni Goliath: “Arrows in your backside”
‘To lose one editor is a misfortune; but to lose two or three, damned careless.’ Jim Davidson paraphrased Oscar Wilde in last night’s commemorative lecture for Meanjin‘s 70th anniversary. The opposite of a sentimental stroll down memory lane, the talk, A Cork Upon the Ocean: Meanjin and the Changing Context, 1940-2010, was a focused survey of the magazine’s visionary life, culminating in a blistering critique of its current situation — Meanjin has lately become Melbourne University’s endangered quarterly. (The original cover, right.)
(News recap: Meanjin made news recently when its still current editor, Sophie Cunningham, declined to renew her contract, largely because of uncertainty, “I was not formally consulted once about Meanjin’s future.” The most persistent rumour from an unnamed source is: “The view was that it should go online and be available only online,” a move regarded as a deadly blow. See links below.)
“Arrows in your backside”
Jim Davidson, who was editor No. 2 from 1974-1982, had earlier shown a slide of a dying Assyrian lioness: “Every editorship ends like that — all those arrows in your backside.” In the Prince Philip Theatre, two people right up the front may also have been feeling sympathetic to the lioness: CEO of Melbourne University Press, Louise Adler, and Alan Kohler, Chair of the MUP board, as they were confronted with Davidson’s closing remarks — all those eyes staring at them from the back.
The Meanjin jewel
While the survey portion of Dr Davidson’s talk was a freshly interesting story of Meanjin‘s beginnings and trajectory, in retrospect it also built the frame for his later, forceful comments.
Davidson described how Meanjin was started in wartime Brisbane, 1940, by a 29-y-o Clem Christesen (right). How Christesen had nutured, fought for and dragged it into a magazine with this kind of brilliant rollcall:
Patrick White and A. D. Hope, Hal Porter, Martin Boyd and Christina Stead, A. A. Philips’ article that coined the phrase “cultural cringe,” Margaret Preston and Sidney Nolan, “the Jindyworobaks (neo-Aboriginal nationalists) and the Angry Penguins (modernists),” and amazingly: Ezra Pound, Bertolt Brecht, Louis Aragon, Albert Camus, Arthur Miller and Dylan Thomas. And Solzhenitsyn “at the height of his fame.” Fantastically, Judith Wright was the magazine’s first secretary.
As Davidson puts it: “It was this surprising connectedness – at a time when people still largely travelled in ships and wrote on aerogrammes – that made it remarkable that a 1953 survey emanating from Princeton should declare Meanjin one of the seven best literary magazines in the English-speaking world.”
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