Writing and rampaging with Christopher Pearson


Cover of The Melbourne Partisan featuring Robert Menzies as the Statue of LibertyIt started, both times, with a phone call.

I met Christopher Pearson when I supervised his Flinders University honours thesis, a typically erudite, dense study of the 'chthonic elements in Patrick White'. It was a very good thesis but I annoyed him when I flippantly suggested that if he published it he could call it Breakfast at Chthonies. And so the years passed, until ...

Early in 1985, out of the blue, Christopher Pearson phoned me. Did I have any short stories, 'pieces', essays etc.? He had bought the moribund Adelaide Review and was planning to transform it but, for the moment, there was a shortage of material and a pressing deadline.

Well, I had a few ideas but very little written. His enthusiasm and optimism, however, provided the spark that overcame my excuses — pressure of work, need for quiet, young children — the usual array of caveats that ensure that all those 'great books' will rot safely in the mind. So, like the others he had rallied to the cause — Peter Goldsworthy, Howard Twelvetree, who wrote about food as John McGrath, Murray Bramwell on drama, John Neylon on art and design, among a growing number — I had a shot.

In those formative years of the Adelaide Review Pearson was a fine editor, unobtrusive but firm; open to ideas and risk; creative and daring. And he was a tireless, persuasive entrepreneur who charmed a whole army of sponsors and advertisers.

Publication days were legendary — at first in the unadorned, carpetless spaces of the Review's various early editorial headquarters, later at more exotic venues like the Henley Beach jetty where a twilight oyster extravaganza and a couple of hundred supporters crowded out the local fishermen to their bemused annoyance. Or the elegant gardens of Carclew House in North Adelaide during Writers Week — this time it was the visiting writers who wondered what they'd wandered into but, more adaptable than the fishermen, participated with great gusto.

It was always in those days a razor thin operation financially. One morning I arrived at the Hindley Street office — a former brothel — to deliver an article, and found Pearson studying what looked like a business card.

'Have a look at this,' he said.

On the back of the card was scrawled: 'Dear Mr Pearson, if you do not pay the rent by 4pm this afternoon, you will be evicted immediately.' I looked at him. 'How much is the rent?' It was $250.

'What are you going to do?'

Pearson smiled. He was a regular contributor to a national journal and would be paid that day $230 for recent articles. Incautiously I asked what about the other $20. He leaned forward, rubbed forefinger and thumb together in the time-honoured money-money gesture and said, 'How're you holding?'

I stumped up the missing $20.

In ensuing years, Pearson and I scarcely ever agreed about anything, but I look back on the Review's ragtag, cavalier youth with gratitude and affection.

The other phone call came in the 1960s, from my friends Laurie Clancy and John Timlin. Clancy and I were fellow postgraduate students at Melbourne University. He and Timlin, after extensive discussions in the Mayfair Hotel near the university — a venue with which I was profoundly familiar — had decided to launch a political journal. It would be called The Melbourne Partisan. Writers were assembled.

My task was to write a column under the pseudonym 'Sniper' about more or less anything that took my fancy. My first effort was on the censorship of Oz Magazine and the second — a satirical attack on the television footy shows of the day called Saturday Night and Sunday Morning — was especially severe on Channel 9. Clancy, posing as a cleaner, managed to deposit about 500 copies in the Channel 9 foyer. Tony Charlton, the show's accomplished anchor man, was reportedly furious.

Meanwhile, Laurie wrote a long, researched and damning piece on unionist Tom Dougherty. Five thousand copies of that issue were distributed by Dougherty's union enemies to influence coming internal elections. Dougherty said he would sue if the Melbourne Partisan did not shut down, and, while he was politely invited to join the lengthening, right wing anti-Partisan queue, it was clear that the adventure was over.

The Partisan ran for three tumultuous issues, each one brainstormed in the front bar of the Mayfair and adorned with corrosively rebellious cover illustrations — Bob Menzies as the Statue of Liberty, the American Flag with Coca-Cola bottles in place of stars. Timlin, a man of a thousand contacts, masterminded sponsorship, distribution and fought off the creditors. Clancy rounded up and supervised the writers.

They were heady days at the Review and the Partisan, fuelled by rampant idealism, up-jumped confidence, booze, and the erratic, fortunate combination of various talents. Sadly, Pearson and Clancy are gone — probably not to the same ethereal destination — and the rest of us are older, theoretically wiser, but certainly nostalgic and without regret for the rampaging days of The Adelaide Review and The Melbourne Partisan.

Brian Matthews headshotBrian Matthews is honorary professor of English at Flinders University and an award winning columnist and biographer.

Topic tags: Brian Matthews, Christopher Pearson, Laurie Clancy



submit a comment

Existing comments

Brian, thank you for a worthy tribute to an erudite and forthright man. My only quibble would be regarding your parenthesis, "probably not to the same ethereal destination". My view of the after life is that it is a state of being free from the constrictions of space and time, where the limitless curiosity of the human mind/soul is forever challenged, yet remains happy, joyous anf free. I think both Clancy and Pearson deserve to be there. And I think they would enjoy it.

Uncle Pat | 19 July 2013  

Interesting piece, Brian. A bit of Oz Lit history. Pity we don't have anything as long term as Le Canard Enchaine or Private Eye. Pearson always appeared a larger than life contradictory figure to me. As far as I am aware he never quite squared his rather conservative Catholicism with his sex life and he was quite frank about that. I wonder if the Adelaide Review has already perished or will do so with his demise? I never saw a copy but then I live in Brisbane which is a bit remote from SA.

Edward F | 19 July 2013  

Thanks Brian – for the memory? It's always exhilarating to read a writer who does justice to complex characters. I remember that Christopher Pearson too. And one Adelaide Writers' Festival occasion where, God bless, him, he organised Peter Porter and Les Murray onto the same stage. Not bad... A pleasure, as always, to read you.

Morag Fraser | 20 July 2013  

Similar Articles

'Fundamentalist' Americans miss the point of Boston bomber cover

  • Catherine Marshall
  • 22 July 2013

Glory is the preserve of the patriotic American. Never was this belief more obvious than when Rolling Stone dared to publish on its cover a photograph of the alleged Boston bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The ensuing public outrage has invoked the stiflingly patriotic adage adopted by George W. Bush shortly after the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers: you're either with us or against us.



Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up