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In conversation with Morag Fraser

As part of the 30th anniversary of Eureka Street, I’ve been speaking with the team who first started the publication in 1991, alongside various people who have played a part in the Eureka Street story.

In these (digital) pages, Morag Fraser AM needs no introduction. An editor, writer and legend in Australian literary commentary, Morag was editor of Eureka Street for its first thirteen years of existence. In the intervening years, Morag has been an adjunct professor in Humanities and Social Sciences at La Trobe University, Chair of Australian Book Review, and a judge for some of Australia’s most prestigious literary prizes including the Miles Franklin Literary Award. In 2004, she was made a Member of the Order of Australia for services to journalism.

Morag Fraser is an entertaining and erudite conversationalist and according to founding publisher Michael Kelly SJ, it was Morag who gave Eureka Street its distinctive voice. In this interview, it’s that unique voice our discussion keeps returning to.

The tone for Eureka Street was — and is — witty and irreverent in a way that acknowledges human dignity, and avoids descending into satire. ‘It is a fine line,’ Morag admits. ‘You take your material seriously, you don't take yourself seriously at all, all the while treating people with dignity and respect.’

The Eureka Street voice is, much like the founding team, complicated. And a proper understanding of the voice requires an understanding of the magazine’s formation.

Eureka Street was established by a very particular group of men at a particular moment in church history,’ Morag says, referring to Peter Steele SJ, Jesuit provincial and professor of English at the University of Melbourne; Michael Kelly SJ, the entrepreneurial spirit behind the magazine; and Bill Uren SJ, a professional ethicist who happened to be the next provincial after Peter Steele. Add to that list Adrian Lyons SJ, Andrew Hamilton SJ, Michael McGirr, Frank Brennan SJ and you have an intellectual powerhouse of gifted individuals. ‘These men believed that the Church, particularly the Jesuit tradition, had something to bring to public debate.’

But what they created could not be easily categorised as simply a ‘Catholic’ magazine, and was never a publication that shied away from publishing challenging ideas. ‘All those men were broad thinkers and I don’t think they wanted a Catholic silo magazine. We wanted a magazine that explored issues deeply.’

 

‘Intellectual integrity, wit, seriousness and an understanding of your audience and a love of people. It’s just a good formula.’

 

The New Yorker was one of the magazines that I often thought about because it had that wonderful blend of current affairs and deep thinking. But we didn't want to imitate anything,’ Morag says. ‘We wanted an Australian magazine that came out of a whole Jesuit way of being.’

The former Eureka Street editor recalls a lunch meeting with the then Jesuit provincial Peter Steele SJ in the magazine’s formative days. ‘Peter’s instructions to me were very complicated. He said, “you’ve got to publish the best writing you can lay your hands on.” That’s all he ever said. Peter himself was ironic and saw the complexity of the world. And that’s what the magazine tried to do. It was meant to be both deep thinking and worldly at the same time and to keep people engaged and entertained. The tone had to be complex. The world is complex.’

The resulting voice was an amalgam reflecting the diverse set of influences behind its creation. ‘Intellectual integrity, wit, seriousness and an understanding of your audience and a love of people. It’s just a good formula.’

Morag stresses that at no point was this a one-person show, and the strength of the publication lay in the quality of the team who put together the publication each month. And yet while conversing with Morag, I realise this is a person who is possessed of those same qualities that have been descriptors of Eureka Street: magisterial, entertaining, witty and deeply committed to the idea of informed public debate. It’s a voice that continues to echo through the magazine to this day.

 

View more Eureka Street 30th anniversary interviews on our YouTube channel.  

You can support the work of Eureka Street by donating here. Your donation helps us keep Eureka Street free and open; it allows us pay the contributors, and most importantly it ensures that the unique and values-based content that we offer remains available to all.

 

David Halliday is editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: David Halliday, Morag Fraser, Eureka Street

 

 

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Existing comments

I remember Peter Steele, possibly the guiding spirit of ES, for his immensely intellectual lectures at the Shop, aka Melbourne University, long ago. In real life I think he was quite a warm man. Morag Fraser, who I have never met, seems a bit like some of the amazing bluestockings who inhabit the London literary world. Literary Melbourne is a closed world. It's a bit like Edinburgh's. If you have no entree you remain a perpetual outsider. Morag has kindly opened the door. I have not lived in Melbourne for a very long time. I must confess I enjoy satire. Sometimes it is only satire which deflates the pompous. Salman Rushdie is a master of satire. It almost got him killed. I suppose I am neither a Melbourne nor an ES man. Life goes on.


Edward Fido | 20 December 2021  

Congratulations to everyone involved in the production of Eureka Street. I have been an occasional commentator and regular reader inspired and challenged by the diversity of opinion pieces.

As well as the wisdom gained from the pages I have also been nurtured by personal friendships with some of the key players in this enterprise. Although a Franciscan at heart I seem to have fallen under the Ignatian spell with more Jesuits than Franciscans among my social media contacts!!!!!

So again thanks for this important contribution to Australian journalism and I also acknowledge the many voices that have contributed commentary that has stimulated debate and inspired conversation.


Tony Robertson | 20 December 2021  

I think Tony Robertson has fallen for the common mistake of thinking that the boundaries to the different Catholic spiritualities are more hard and fast than they in fact are. Francis of Assisi's spirituality evolved over time with God's Grace, as did that of Ignatius of Loyola. They were both Mystics in the true Catholic sense. Everyone involved in the founding of Eureka Street, which is not like any other Catholic magazine I know of anywhere, was, I believe, guided. I am always touched when someone like Bill Uren or Frank Brennan, both towering intellectual figures, explain matters from their special fields so the average intelligent layperson can understand. That is real teaching. I always found Melbourne University a cold and unwelcoming place. I was once invited by a young Jesuit scholastic to attend the Easter services at Newman. I wish I had taken him up. Alas, I was going through the rebellion and spiritual searching phase of youth, so didn't. I have found my way home, but it may have been easier if I'd taken his offer up. ES is not just a magazine: it's a very effective spiritual outreach. It touches people. Mille fois bravo Morag et al.


Edward Fido | 21 December 2021  
Show Responses

As I see it, Edward, the "Eureka Street" inceptors, religious and lay, sought to broaden perception and engagement of the Australian Jesuit "intellectual and social apostolate" beyond the Institute of Social Order's association with BA Santamaria and the Movement, which held sway in traditional Catholic circles after the split with Labor ( and which, in some ways, John Warhurst's reform coalition, though politically opposite, closely resembles). The first drivers of ES heartily welcomed the optimistic note struck by John XXIII in convoking Vatican II, particularly in seeking a collaborative Church-world relationship in addressing issues of poverty and justice.
A key task and test for ES today, it seems to me, in accord with Pope Francis, is to discern and encourage movements and groups whose vision and purpose are compatible with a "faith that does justice", without attenuation of the Society of Jesus' defining identity as "companions of Jesus" and the call and mission to make him known and loved. I strongly believe with you that the theological and spiritual dimensions of the magazine are of critical importance (though I don't see them being advanced by personal criticisms that masquerade as irony and avoid due attention to the inevitable questions that arise in the topics at hand). As 2022 presents for me welcome yet more pressing engagements (not the least of which is a new grandchild!) my ES postings are likely to be less frequent than in recent times. Meanwhile, a blessed Christmas to you and your dear wife, who remains in my prayers.


John RD | 23 December 2021