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The Eureka moment

Morag Fraser recalls sitting in a friend’s house on a hot day in Sydney with a handful of faxes that had just arrived from poet Seamus Heaney in Ireland. Heaney had recently given a talk at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival and Fraser, editor of Eureka Street, had asked him if the magazine could publish the talk.

‘He said sure, but let me see what you’re going to publish. So I dutifully transcribed every impeccable word—he’s a great rhetorician—and faxed it to him. When I got it back he had not left a single sentence untouched. This is the poet/control freak/maniac. It was a great privilege to be sitting there editing the editing.’

An earlier Eureka moment that Fraser recalls is more personal. Her father died between the first issue of the magazine going to press and coming back from the printer. ‘I was at my father’s funeral in Adelaide when Michael Kelly and Adrian Lyons walked down the aisle carrying the first issue, and I thought my father would’ve really loved that.’

That first issue, published in March 1991, began a 15-year print history that comes to a close with this final May–June 2006 issue. Along the way the magazine has published some of the finest writers working in Australia and overseas, and has covered issues that were often ignored or glossed over by the mainstream media. The masthead of the March 1991 issue listed Michael Kelly sj as publisher, Adrian Lyons sj as editor and Morag Fraser as associate editor. To introduce the new magazine, its editors wrote:

But why launch a new publication at a time of recession and international conflict? We believe that with the mass media now in fewer hands than they have been for decades, the range of perspectives offered to Australian readers is too few. And the right questions—the questions behind the questions—are not being pursued vigorously enough. Eureka Street aims to pinpoint issues of importance to Australia, in the context of the region and the wider world. We are enlisting writers who report accurately, analyse perceptively and who are capable of making their own contribution to the questions at hand ... Above all, we want Eureka Street to be a ‘good read’ for thoughtful people.

By the third issue, May 1991, Fraser was editor, a role that she filled with distinction until 2003. (‘I came in with one Gulf War and went out with another,’ she observes wryly.) Fraser’s impact on Eureka Street was enormous, but she acknowledges a lot of support: ‘It was always a group exercise. If I hadn’t had extraordinarily good proofreaders, if I hadn’t had a series of assistant editors and production editors who were very good at their job, I simply couldn’t have done it. It’s interesting that a lot of them have gone on to write elsewhere and do other things. They were very good.’

Fraser recalls having lunch with Peter Steele sj, who was the Provincial Superior of the Australian Jesuits when Eureka Street started, and getting his full endorsement for the magazine: ‘I asked him just what it was the Jesuits were looking for, and he said, “Just publish the best writing that you get.” He knew that our notions of the best writing would coincide.’

Steele says that when he made the decision to start Eureka Street he had one main hope: ‘This was that it should provide an opportunity for lively, intelligent, and courteous conversation between (mainly) Christian believers and the Australian community at large.

‘I did not see any publication with which I was acquainted as providing a model for this one. I believed, and still do, that the Australian experience of both the secular and the sacred is distinctive, indeed unique: and I thought that it was up to all who would be seriously involved in the magazine to find an original voice for original matters. I have been gratified and heartened to see the extent to which this has in fact taken place.’

From the beginning the magazine strived for a style and a look that Fraser says was ‘somewhere between Harper’s and The New Yorker. The hallmark of those two magazines was the quality of the writing. That was always what I wanted, and what I was very much encouraged to do, first by Peter and then by Bill Uren, who was the next Provincial.

‘We’d had a lot of set-up help from a Jesuit called Michael Harter who’d worked for America magazine. I visited Michael in his lair on Staten Island and I’d seen a lot of what both America and Commonweal had produced. Mike did the initial layout design.’

It was a design that won numerous awards over the years in the Australian Catholic Press Association and the Australasian Religious Press Association, but the true distinction of Eureka Street lay in its coverage of issues of social justice, politics and contemporary life, and in the quality of its writing.

‘It was a privilege to be able to give writers, thinkers and people who were interested in public policy and politics genuine space, not just sound-bite space, in order to develop arguments about how we might live,’ says Fraser. ‘Dealing with writers of great quality was marvellous—writers who were still endowed with a genuine humility, always anxious about whether what they had done was as good as what they could do.

‘And of course we had an interest in theology. It said so, didn’t it: “A magazine of public affairs, the arts and theology”. I always thought theology was the bit that intrigued people. It was satisfying, for slightly perverse reasons, when people would say things like, “It’s a religious magazine, are you allowed to say what you think?” And I’d say, “Well I’ve never been censored,” which is true. It could have been a real deadener having “theology” in the masthead, so such theology or religious affairs that we published had to be pretty sharp to keep people reading.

‘Once you get involved with a large international organisation like the Jesuits, and if you’ve got good connections—and for a variety of reasons I did, and we did—you do run across people who can really write. And so if it was South Africa there was always someone who was there or who’d been there, or who knew about it. I can remember the April 1994 issue with its cover photo of Nelson Mandela and words that said simply, “South Africa votes.”

‘Because of that network it meant that connections continued with people who had worked in the place. Jon Greenaway, for example, was my assistant editor for quite a number of years. When Jon left Eureka Street he was travelling a lot and because he was working with Jesuit Refugee Service his travel took him to Sri Lanka. So when the Tamil Tigers were at their absolute worst, John was actually there.’

Fraser says that she has always been horrified by how long it took the Australian government to act over East Timor, ‘because the information that we were getting back from reporters on the ground was that if the independence vote went through, the whole place would blow. And it did.’

East Timor was just one of the major events that Eureka Street covered during its 15-year print history. There was also Tampa, the elections of the 1990s that brought down Labor and brought in John Howard, the children-overboard affair, the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, and the ongoing asylum-seekers’ crisis.

‘The danger with a magazine like Eureka Street was that it would be worthy,’ says Fraser. ‘That was one of the adjectives often used, and sometimes it was. Sometimes some things would’ve attracted only a few readers, but I know I’d do it all again. There are a few readers who really wanted to know about it. And you know the rule of thumb with magazines: if you read two good articles you think it’s a brilliant magazine.’

Producing the magazine was not always smooth sailing. Fraser recalls the night before press day that the entire magazine completely disassembled itself: ‘It literally threw itself across the screen. It looked as though a kid had been playing paintball on the screen. We went back to the proof sets of ten o’clock that morning and painstakingly tried to remember what finely judged decisions we’d made—not just proofing but the last little bits of editing. We got through it on extremely good Chinese back massages!’

For Fraser, it was the people that made the magazine, and some of them, she recalls, were ‘real characters. Michael McGirr was one. You’d have to be blind, deaf and dumb not to understand that Michael is certifiable. But he’s one of the most eccentric and interesting people I’ve ever worked with.

‘I worked with Andy Hamilton for a long period of time. He’s so smart, so human, and yet so tough-minded—intellectually absolutely reliable. I didn’t always have to agree with the judgment but I knew that I would always get a comment that I could respect, and he’d turn the work around so fast it was terrific.

‘We had some extremely good cartoonists. In Dean Moore we still have. He’s got one of the blackest minds I’ve ever come across, and I love that. It was a magazine that let irony have full play within a context that wasn’t cynical.’

Fraser says she was enormously grateful for the initial connections set up by Michael Kelly, and for the contributions of Ray Cassin, ‘a terrific writer who wrote a wonderful column’, and Jack Waterford, ‘enormously well connected, but also a journalist’s journalist.

‘The networks were good, and we had in those initial stages an enormous amount of support from extremely good and influential writers. Ed Campion and Gerard Windsor were two of them who did put us in touch with a lot of people who kept an eye on things.

‘Part of the brief was for us to get writing that showed people who weren’t necessarily card-carrying Catholics just how public affairs and theology intersected where they did, how religious and theological issues bore in on public life and vice versa. Frank Brennan’s a name that comes to mind ... and Peter Steele.

 ‘The things that got me into trouble—if one ever bothers about that sort of thing— were the things I’d published from the head of the Dominicans in Australia or Victoria, and the then Jesuit provincial, Bill Uren. I’m very proud of having published those. They were fine, theologically informed, critical pieces, and that criticism was part of the loyal opposition that I think any church neglects at its peril.’

So now the final print issue of Eureka Street goes forth into the world. A new version of the magazine is about to emerge online. There have been inklings of it in the fortnightly editorials that have been sent to subscribers and posted on our web site since last October.

At this moment of transition, Peter Steele speaks for all of us who have been involved in Eureka Street: ‘Many things, for good and for ill, have happened in Australia and in the world since Eureka Street’s beginning. What has remained a constant has been the judiciousness, the vivacity, and the lack of pretentiousness with which the magazine has been edited, and the corresponding virtues in the great majority of its contributors. I can only hope that, in its electronic version, the same admirable traits will be there for all to see.’ 

Robert Hefner is the acting editor of Eureka Street.



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