[First published Poet of the 21st Century, Harry Hooton Collected Poems, poems and prose introduced and selected by Sasha Soldatow Angus & Robertson 1990 North Ryde. Introduction updated April 2001]
Language is not eternal. It will be replaced. We are not going to talk for ever.1
In modern Australian literature, Harry Hooton stands in 'idiosyncratic isolation',2 an unjustly neglected writer who is rarely mentioned. Contemporary Australian critic John Docker, for example, omits him from both of his books on the grounds that, although aware of Hooton's existence, Docker has never known where to fit him in.3 Yet Hooton keeps on cropping up, sometimes in the most unexpected places. His poem 'Moonlight', largely forgotten in Australia, last appeared in translation in a French review of modern Australian poetry in 1983.4
The problem is a complex one. When I first started working on Harry Hooton, I was convinced the answer lay in the fact that Hooton was actively suppressed by his peers and contemporaries. I'm not so sure now. On the one hand, from the late 1930s to the early 1940s, Hooton was published by most of the major magazines of his time-from small publications such as Forward, Bohemia, Pertinent, A Comment and Meanjin Papers to more mainstream journals like the Workers' Education Association's The Australian Highway and the Australian Institute of Political Science's The Australian Quarterly. In 1943, he was employed, albeit reluctantly on Hooton's part, as a journalist on Frank Packer's Daily Telegraph5 and in 1945, using the nom de plume Philistine, Hooton contributed a regular, highly opinionated book review column to the Australian Labor Party's The Standard Weekly. Hardly the history of someone suppressed.
Yet, with each publication, there is a sense that Hooton's writing is somehow out of step with the other contributions. His work is too vibrant. It stands out in its insistence, its originality and its unmistakably Hootonic tone, so it comes as no surprise to find Hooton missing after a few appearances. Hooton himself encourages this interpretation.
For what Australia is worth I rank in it as its only therefore its foremost therefore its worst anarchist poet. Editors who will print me on literary-artistic lines are confined to those starting new publications, which as new publications must, make a bid for revolutionary support, by featuring me. The inevitable respectable commercial success, if they are 'lucky', follows, and I am dropped - to our mutual satisfaction. Things are only good at their inception.6
Here is the grand flourish that accompanies many of Hooton's statements, the provocative gesture, the revolutionary moment phrased in words. But there is also an iconoclastic irony associated with this gesture, which, more than anything else, is the first point of entry into Hooton's work. For Hooton has a lot of humour and wit about him. But that is only a start. Hooton is not a lightweight poet, as a reading of one of his more popular poems, 'The Cart', might suggest. He is also a serious thinker.
Nowadays we suppose that poetry and philosophy are quite separate activities; that philosophy is a more exact and abstract and and examination of things, logically and coolly and detachedly, whereas poetry is some sort of mysterious and mystical intuition that anyone can attain into the nature of things. But of course the ancients had no such view as that. The early philosophies were all expressed in poetry or at least in verse and there was not that distinction that we draw today between philosophy and poetry or science and art ... incidentally, and somewhat contradictorily, I didn't like poetry when I was young. My critics may not be surprised to hear that, since they might contend that my attempts to essay poetry have not always been successful ... That was, of course, until 1 realised again that poetry is much closer to prose, much closer to philosophy and to damn solid talk, speeches and sloganeering, than we suppose.7
Harry Hooton had a purpose. He believed in art as a positive force and, as such, he wanted to use art to change the world. Almost everything he wrote was an expression of this aim. Poets can be as profound and as plain as that - Shelley and Wilde both said the same. In fact, Hooton treated writing and talking as a higher, sacred calling; from the letters that poured out of him, words tumbling over each other in their hurry to get out, to the reappearance of his ideas in meticulously crafted, sparse poems and precise prose. No sentence was to be unnecessary, no word wasted.
That is one reason why his poetry seems at first to be simply didactic, which it sometimes is. But there is more to his writing than just a bit of jazzed up philosophy. If that was all there was to Hooton, everything would be simple; we could dismiss him without another thought.
Many prominent critics, some of them poets themselves, did just that. Dorothy Auchterlonie (later Green) had this to say of Things You See When You Haven't Got a Gun.
We have been trying to dodge the problem of Hooton for a long time ... when we had read half-way through'Things You See . . .' we had a crude impulse to put our hands to our ears and scream for God's sake, Harry, stop that noise. When we had come to, we wished we had a gun.
She concludes that his writing is a case of arrested development.8
James MeAuley's opinion was even harsher. He dismissed Hooton as an oddity, 'an anarchist whose writings were without talent or coherent ideas'.9 In later years, after Hooton's death, a student at the University of Tasmania remembered McAuley foaming at the mouth at the mention of Hooton's poetry.10 Harold Stewart, McAuley's co-conspirator in the Ern Malley hoax, calls his poetry 'Whitmaniacal verbal sludge'.11 Most painful of all was Alec Hope's review of Power Over Things, resulting in one of Hope's infamously cruel diatribes.
Power Over Things contains a few pages of alleged verse and a good deal of exclamatory prose in the interests of a new world theory Anarcho-Technocracy ... Anarchism with a Science Fiction face-lift ... So far as one can judge by the specirnens of anarcho-technocratic verse in the book the result is Ogden Nash and water.12
Hooton had published Hope in the 1940s and the early 1950s, so Hope's betrayal was acutely felt.13
This was the beginning of a torrent of abuse that has lasted to this day, from Frank Hardy ('Harry Hooton was a charlatan. He conned a lot of people')14 to Donald Horne. In his autobiography not only does Horne misquote Hooton, he also gets his philosophy wrong,15 which is a surprise as his ideas, on one level, are magically simple. Leave man alone, man is perfect. Concentrate instead on matter. He formulated what he called 'The Politics of Things'. But this again was only another start, a simple insight, the catchy formulation of a complex set of interactions which Hooton went on to detail in his writing.
All social theorists tend to anarchy as the ultimate ideal. Anarchy is a condition of society in which no man rules over another. To the Christian it is the rule of God, when the Kingdom of Heaven comes to earth. To the Communist it is the rule of a dialectical process, an idea. Rationalists and others think of it coming when men shall have evolved, or have been educated up to the standard whereby they can act sensibly without being told. They would have men exercise self-restraint, inhibition - other rules. The artist, who is also an anarchist, parts company with them all. Not only does he object to postponing the free society to a later date, he distrusts this delegation of his power to myths or abstractions. He wants to be free from gods as well as masters. And he wants to be free now ... It is obvious the anarchists have always been disappointed men.16
I have no idea when Harry Hooton began to write, when he seriously decided to become 'one of the legion of paper- wasters'.17 In fact there is very little we reliably know about his early life. Here are some facts. It's surprising to think of Hooton being born anywhere but Australia because he seems such a fixed part of Sydney. But he was actually born Henry Arthur Hooton, on 9 October 1908, at home at 10 Cunningham Road, Upper Doncaster, County of York. His birth certificate records that his father was Levi Hooton, a railway shunter, and his mother was Margaret Hooton, nee Lester-Glaister, no occupation recorded. There was also an older brother, Frank.
Of his schooling we know only that he attended Christ's College, Finchley, a boys' selectivie day school. Hooton makes a point in his early biographical notes to say that Christ's College was where he was educated, though records attest to his attendance only in the year 1922-23, when Hooton was fourteen.
Hooton's aesthetic education seems more to have begun with his father's large library. 'I'm sure he never read the books from what I remember of his conversation,' says Hooton. 'But it seemed that he was trying to do the right thing in providing books for us boys.'18 There, the young Harry found Omar Khayyam and fell in love with its stanzas, reading them so often that he learned them by heart. The library also held all the major Victorian English poets as well as surprising works like Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. Destined to become a major influence, Hooton did not take much notice of Whitman at first, finding his verse colourless and, apart from a few beautiful lines, 'just simply unmusical'.19
This all changed when he came to Sydney on 28 October 1924, aged sixteen, on the ship Demosthenes as part of an Empire scheme, the Dreadnought Trust, with fifty-nine other boys. This was a colonialist endeavour of sending children to the healthier colonies (his brother Frank was sent to Canada).20 Of those first ten years or so in Australia we know very little. All we know is that when Harry left the Government Agricultural Training Farm at Scheyville in June 1925 he became a tramp.
Looking back, Hooton acknowledged an English schoolboy's priggishness in his early contemptuous attitude to the bush and Australia generally. Included in this was Australian literature, the galloping ballads in particular. This was to change. On reading a volume of Henry Lawson, Hooton suddenly realised that, though he was technically lacking in innovation, Lawson was infinitely greater than he'd supposed, 'the nearest approach to a poet that Australia had produced'. Lawson's democratic, populist and political content certainly touched a common nerve. But it also did more - it brought Hooton sharply back to Whitman.
[Whitman] became incorporated in my early philosophy, if I can say it is my philosophy, if the nomad's way, the hobo's way or the way Christ put forward for the sparrows and the lilies, to take no thought of the morrow, freedom and irresponsibility and youth, not caring a damn, can be called a philosophy.21
Whitman proceeded to shatter for Hooton the traditional idea of well-made verse, poetry that obeyed rules.
All the while, of course, like most of the unemployed in Australia during the depression, Hooton took the occasional job when it appeared, but otherwise hung around. Some people have him as a drover, but I'm not sure of that. People remember his reputation as a lousy punter, but a champion with a cue. To be a great billiard player is a sign of a misspent youth, was how Hooton put it.22 There was also some criminal activity which resulted in Hooton spending eighteen months in Maitland Jail for unarmed robbery.23 Well, anarchists couldn't carry guns. It gave him the title to his second book of poems, Things You See When You Haven't Cot A Gun. Prison gave him something else. There was nothing to read there, only the Bible, and the influence on his style is obvious.
About the only other things known about the time to 1936 is that Hooton humped his swag around Queensland,24 was in Sydney in 1933, where he discovered Krishnamurti,25 Melbourne in 1934, Sydney again in late 1935 and then Newcastle (and Marks Point) where he lived for six years. In Newcastle, on 3 November 1936 at St John's Anglican Church, he married Thora Zilma Isabel Hatch who bore him twins, Frank and Valerie. All the time they moved frequently. It was in Newcastle that he started his serious writing, which of course interfered with earning a quid. Writing and keeping down a job became recurring problems. Hooton took relief work, labouring jobs, door to door selling, never anything that could be called permanent employment. Of one factory job he wrote, 'The Egg Board broke my heart.'26
In 1936, just as his first pieces of writing were being published, Hooton met Bill Pitt, the son of the poet Marie E. J. Pitt, a ballad writer from the great 1890s period of The Bulletin27 Largely forgotten, Marie Pitt was still alive in Melbourne and they started a correspondence, Pitt becoming Hooton's first literary contact. More importantly, he found in her a writer he could admire, provocatively referring to her as Henry Lawson in skirts.28
Marie Pitt was a receptive but not always compliant listener. Their friendship began and ended with letters, for they never met. It started as an exchange of convenience. Originally Marie, like any mother, corresponded with Hooton as a way of keeping in contact with her wayward son. Hooton knew and liked Billy quite well, they even lived in the same residential in Newcastle for a while, until they fell out in 1938 (we don't know why). The significant thing is that after a short time the correspondence acquired a momentum of its own. The letters between these two writers, starting when Hooton was twenty-eight and Pitt sixty-seven, continued for another eight and a half years till Marie Pitt suffered a stroke in 1945 from which she died in May 1948.
Hooton loved his correspondence, second only to talking, and threw himself into letter writing, an obsession which would last with him to his death. When Hooton lived in Wylde Street, Potts Point, in the 1950s, he had a post office box at the GPO. Picking up his letters was always a moment of excitement.29 John Hargrave, the English writer, describes Hooton's letters as almost always typed and 'crammed tight with single-spaced margin-crowded eye-swivelling sight-blinding a-to-z key bashing'30 and they are. Because he was always so poor, the ribbon in his typewriter was rarely replaced. Hooton used letters to sort out his own ideas, like a notebook - if he couldn't talk he'd write, and he wrote hundreds of letters, keeping carbon copies for his own use.
Hooton was certainly no friend of any establishment. Politically he described himself initially as a Trotskyist and very soon became involved with the internationalist Industrial Workers of the World, the Wobblies, through the legendary Annie (Ma) Westbrook and Monty Miller.31 In 1939 he took part in the Unemployed People's strike and the same year became secretary of the local Peace Pledge Union, a world-wide pacifist organisation.32 Consequently he was kept under surveillance and raided by the military police in 1940,33 a relatively mild reaction given that Newcastle was a strategic centre during the war, the location of the most important industrial, mining and shipping activity in the Commonwealth. In 1942, twenty members of the Australia First Movement would be interned for nothing more than publishing their thoughts.
As a provocative social and political commentator, Hooton was encouraged at this time by the editor of the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners' Advocate to air his views in the letters columns. They were certainly outspoken contributions, intended to alienate both the communists and the conservatives. Hooton dealt with a wide variety of international issues, from the League of Nations to the conflicts between Fascism, Communism, Christianity and Democracy. Ultimately, just before the outbreak of the war, his views alienated the newspaper itself and Hooton's freedom to argue through its columns was stopped.
'My Editor failed me too, I am afraid that the drive to war has made him put his foot down on my letters. Nevertheless I shall try to spread disaffection among gun-fodder. I wrote a couple of straight letters from a worker's point of view. It was too much for a professional ink-slinger; after all he is employed by the war-mongers, and, like me, he has to live. Speaking about the necessity of living, I can't sneer, I too have to be mean and sell photographs to people that can ill afford them, so I am as bad. Indeed we all support the system by merely breathing.34
It was in Newcastle in 1941, during the war, that Hooton's first book of poetry appeared. This was the dismissively satirical These Poets. Published at his own expense in a print run that probably did not exceed 400 copies, most of which Hooton either gave away or swapped, These Poets was a blatant and vigorous parody of poetic orthodoxy. It struck a chord with readers, receiving a wide degree of critical acclaim.
Newcastle has never been famous as a cultural centre. We can boast of profits from coal and steel. We can boast of our politicians, publicans and pugilists and philosophers (with and without armchairs)-we have produced our quota of them-but-we can claim very few poets among the products of this district. But a poet has arisen among us- Harry Hooton-a Newcastle worker has written a book of verse.35
Brian Penton, writer and editor of the Sydney Daily Telegraph, on receiving the book, wrote to Hooton, despite the heavy pressure of his work.
I thought that I had lost all reaction to poetry and frankly picked up your book very reluctantly. It gave me a tremendous kick. I think you have achieved what not many contemporary poets have managed to achieve - a true fusion of poetic and ironic statement.36
Penton passed the book on to Edgar Holt, who gave it a favourable review. More notices followed from all over the political spectrum, from left-wing union newspapers like the Ironworker to Smith's Weekly and even a full page review in The Publicist, by Inky Stephensen no less. Literary journals such as Meanjin Papers also took note,37 and ARNA published a long piece by Harold Stewart, most of it devoted to the poetics of Harold Stewart. But there was enough there about Hooton.
The poetic explosions in that massy tome of yours ... have been erupting under my skin for weeks. I sum up my opinion of them in the title of one of the best folk-songs of the Capitalist Era. They are 'Raggedy But Right'. No intellectual corpse could read them the first time, without sitting up in his academic grave and (pardonably) thinking that this was the resurrection ... You know how to soar.38
Even The Australian Quarterly, which had reservations, drew attention to the vigour of the book, 'far more vital than the run of poetry being published at present'.39 Marie Pitt praised its impatience. Bernard O'Dowd mentioned Hooton on the wireless. The book quickly became a source of gossip as the identity of this new poet from Stockton, Newcastle, was discussed. The musician Louis Lavater wrote to Clem Christesen, the editor of Meanjin Papers.
Have you seen These Poets by Harry Hooton of Newcastle NSW? He insists that words are dead as soon as uttered, though the argument does not seem to apply to the publication of his own. It is interesting as a wild, uncontrolled outburst, damning and blasting everything. I find it refreshing though totally unreasonable.40
The attention thrilled Hooton, as did the widening circle of correspondents. The isolation caused by the war had produced a flurry of creative activity within Australia and the mood was exciting and new. Hooton, through the publication of his small volume, found himself a participant in this reformulation of identity as Australian culture was dragged into the modern world. Suddenly Hooton was in contact with James Devaney, Max Harris, Clem Christesen and Flexmore Hudson. Newcastle, too, had become less of a cultural wasteland, The Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners' Advocate now employed the writers Will Lawson, Godfrey Bentley and Victor Kennedy as journalists. Through Kennedy, Hooton made contact with the Jindyworobaks, particularly Rex Ingamells and lan Mudie. Esmonde Higgins was working at the local Workers' Education Association. Dymphna Cusack and James McAuley were teachers. Something important was happening in Australia at last. Hooton responded by throwing himself into a fury of activity.
I have written ten thousand words in a three instalment article for Forward - arnbitiously named 'Introduction to the Future'. . . I have written twice as much of a philosophical article which may never be published. I have doubled my volume of poetry, and I have written three papers ... and addressed them at meetings to the W.E.A., and the Peace Pledge Union. Incidentally I haven't earned a trey-bit with my pen.41
On top of everything, October 1942 promised to be an exciting month for this small but diverse number of young literary folk who found themselves flung into each other's company, not always agreeably, in the city of Newcastle. Within one week they would meet two of the greats of the Australian literary scene.
Dymphna Cusack had invited her friend and collaborator, the writer Miles Franklin, to attend a party in Newcastle on Sunday 4 October 1942. Franklin, aged sixty-three, arrived from Sydney by train for the weekend on Friday after travelling through heavy rain and a hail storm. On Saturday night she attended a small divertissement.
In evening D + I walked to the Hill to Godftey Bentley's where he put on reading of 'Fire on Snow' with D reading the woman's part. Very chic production. Talked till nearly midnight: with V Kennedy + wife, Colin Mills + wife, H. Hooton + wife and others. Walked home with Dmyph [sic] in bed before 1 a.m.42
Five days later Nettie Palmer passed through Newcastle on her way back to Melbourne after delivering the prestigious annual Commonwealth Literary Fund lectures, five in all, in Brisbane.. Her topic was 'Poetry and the Modern Novel'. Palmer was tired out by the lectures and particularly the travelling. It was not only the hectic routine and the long night-time journeys on crowded wartime trains passing, disorientatingly, through browned-out train stations with their names removed. It was also the constant stream of 'people, people, people'.43 Her overnight stopover in Newcastle was to see her brother, Esmonde Higgins. Yet again there was a party at Godfrey Bentley's.
Hooton, hungry for contacts, took advantage of these fortuitous introductions. He was never one to be backward when it came to expressing his ideas and, soon after he had met Palmer, whom he found 'very considerate and thoughtful',44 he wrote her a letter and a long essay on art. If that wasn't enough, he also enclosed a copy of These Poets and the poem 'Moonlight' in manuscript. We don't know what Palmer's reaction was but can assume it was not positive as there was no further correspondence. To give Palmer her due, Hooton's enthusiasm could have been construed by her as being pushy, Hooton treating this meeting as one between equals. Palmer would not have taken kindly to this - you can judge her irritation from Hooton's dig at her in his letter. 'I remember you saying I had best put all my ideas in some written form, rather than try to convey them by word of mouth.'45 Hooton fared better with Miles Franklin. So did Godfrey Bentley, who wrote flatteringly to her.
[Nettie Palmer] is a very good scout, but I'm afraid I failed in my duty as host by finding it hard to keep up with the celebration she consistently demands in conversation and by showing, perhaps too obviously, my discomfort at being quizzed at through a lorgnette every time I opened my mouth. I felt more at ease with Miles Franklin. Perhaps it is a preference for the creator rather than the critic; but I think there's more to it than that.46
Miles Franklin was nicer than Nettie Palmer, more approachable and less outwardly self-important. She was also prepared to listen. At the party, she and Hooton chatted for quite a while, not only about his ideas. Hooton's growing interest in things American led him to ask Franklin about her experiences of Chicago and New York, her 'closer contact with a wider world'.47 But it didn't take him long to bring things back to matters Australian. This is what he wrote to Marie Pitt.
I met Miles Franklin. She is young, intellectually. After other subjects I wanted [sic] what she thought counted in Aust. Lit. I forget what it was, it wasn't you ... Miles Franklin 'knew of you'. 'Yes, had your book.' 'Yes, must read it- again.' Anyway I fired away. You were, I said, a man-woman. (I was using man for its connotation of strength. Of course I know sexes are hooey, equal - but in the future ... the last emancipation, as true as when you wrote Enslavement, is yet to be. Why I am a feminist. More, a humanist. I don't care whence but what greatness arises.) But Miss Franklin objected, strongly. She regarded it as no compliment'. She was she said, somewhat unnecessarily, both from the point of view of the clothes she was wearing and her work, first and foremost feminine. Afterwards a friend told me it was hardly tactful.48
It didn't matter. The morning after Miles Franklin returned home from Newcastle, she sent a letter with an enclosure to Dymphna Cusack.'Wd you please direct the accompanying paper to Mr Hooten [sic]. It contains something about Carl Sandburg.'49 Hooton immediately replied. 'Thanks for sending that American paper. You certainly picked on my absorbing interest to remember me by.'50 The rest of the letter was in marked contrast to the one Hooton had written Nettie Palmer only the day before. The self-image Hooton projected in them was as different as chalk and cheese.
Ego and a belief in oneself was not something that frightened Harry Hooton. In fact he positively revelled in it. He knew his worth and knew he had a role to play in the future of mankind.
All the writers before and after, especially after, Wilde are negligible. They are hopeless. There are exceptions. There was Whitman. There is to be me. Oh, I can be wrong (modesty, the virtue of the mediocre, will out) but as an aside. If I didn't think I had something better to say than these contemporaries of mine in world literature ... I wouldn't pick up a pen.51
Hooton wrote the above to Donald Horne one month before he wrote this to Nettie Palmer.
The whole tendency of recent artists to make unrecognisable patterns of their works is an endorsement of my thesis that the focal point of modern art is the inhuman world. Cubes, vortices, cylinders, lines are the ,unconscious' selection of subject matters as far as possible outside man's mind that 1 posit as worthy only of our attentions.52
To Miles Franklin he wrote with greater trust. 'The egotism of my seeking expression is only a pose - I have put in ten years seeking, hard, to look up to someone in Australia.'53 In the middle of all this cultural activity, Hooton acknowledged that he felt creatively isolated and intellectually alone. Of all the people he could have chosen to open his heart to, Miles Franklin was the one who knew what he meant54 However, his letter to her was in no way tinged with self-pity or disappointment; rather it was enthusiastic and full of hope. To accept disillusionment would be to compromise; it would be to embrace parochialism or worse, like the Jindyworobaks, be misled by nationalism, something Hooton's philosophy would never allow. Hooton chose therefore to widen his horizons, enlisting Miles Franklin's help.
Would you see if you can rake up all the addresses you can of - (1) American periodicals, such as 'Poetry', etc. (our School of Arts Library does not subscribe to more than the Sat. Even. Post, Atlantic Monthly, and suchlike) and (2) the addresses of any American writers. I would like to contact them. I do not suppose that the great luminaries-the Sandburgs and Robert Frosts - would be flattered by my interest in them; but I am sure somewhere in America, are people with whom I might find something in common.55
Although he searched for recognition, Hooton at heart distrusted success. Now he began to question whether there was anyone in Australia capable of comprehending what he was trying to say. He had searched through Australian literature and found only a handful of writers of any worth - Lawson, Pitt, John Shaw Neilson and maybe now Miles Franklin. Among the current crop there was only mediocrity. Hooton's intention was to start establishing contact with like - minded people from outside Australia, eventually forming an artistic and philosophical grid around the world. It was an ambitious project to conceive, let alone carry out, a substantial aesthetic programme which would require time. Meanwhile, there were the pressing day to day problems of living to solve.
Harry Hooton drifted in at the weekend. He's between jobs again. Says he won't go near Penton, after duly considering the plan Hig[gins] and I evolved for him. Says he thinks manual work is the only sort of work a man can keep his mind and spirit free in. I suppose he's right; but most of us have been too conditioned to comfort to practise the belief like Harry ... And what do you think Harry was clutching under his wing? A copy of your My Brilliant Career that he had rooted out of the shelves in the juvenile (!) section of the School of Arts. It is typical of Harry that he should have gone rooting round in the juvenile section because he got tired, he reckoned, of the muck in the adult section. He was raving about the book and flatly refused efforts by Victor Kennedy and me to wrest it from him. We spent a few hours out at Victor's on Saturday night arguing the point. Latest Hootonism: 'I don't care if I'm not understood, because, when a thing is understood, it is dead.' He added that art was the expression of the future, not of the past or the present; but was good enough to admit that, on this last bit, he was paraphrasing Wilde, whom Harry appears to regard as the only Englishman worth bothering about . . . 56
In 1943 Hooton moved from Newcastle to the lower North Shore of Sydney, first to Neutral Bay and then to a flat above a shop in Military Road, Cremorne. He'd accepted a job as journalist with Penton at the Daily Telegraph, but felt he was wasting his time. He took to frequenting the regular political meetings held around Sydney, a very rich and varied scene. There were Annie Westbrook's anarchist gatherings in her house at 35 Dillon Street, Paddington, where she would serve home-made soup and home-cooked bread,57 and the Mort's Bay branch of the Federated Ironworkers, a hotbed of Trotskyist activists whose meetings were often violently disrupted by opposing members of the Communist Party of Australia. There were also regular Friday lunches held by what was left of the now freed members of the Australia First movement. Hooton had nothing in common with this movement except for a love of argument. They, in turn, having lost The Publicist, tried to 'affect' poets, but after three months decided that Hooton was 'not much of a character'.58
In Sydney in 1943 Hooton tried to follow up the success of These Poets with another book. Initially, he had submitted a book of poems titled Leave Yourself Alone to Angus & Robertson, but nothing came of this. Things You See When You Haven't Got A Gun was again a small self-published booklet and contained the first of his philosophical/didactic poems. When noticed, the book was ridiculed, but mostly it was ignored. Although disappointing, this didn't seem to worry Hooton. Maybe he was expecting it. More probably Hooton was engrossed in other, more important projects.
It was in Newcastle that Hooton had first begun to work on establishing a truly intellectually farsighted magazine. He tried to start one called Future. This was renamed The Point in 1941 when Godfrey Bentley and the painter Geoffrey Burnett became involved, but nothing came of this. About the same time Hooton made the acquaintance of a scheme devised by Garry Lyle and John Cremin, their first attempt in the business of bookmaking.59 It was to be an anthology of poetry financed by each author contributing eight pounds towards its publication. The book was successful beyond their dreams.60
By the time Hooton moved from Newcastle, Garry Lyle was in the armed forces and had been quartered at Sydney for a considerable time. They took to each other immediately and came up with an idea for a magazine that was to be untitled, unpretentious and unadvertised. It was to be printed by Gestetner and called simply No. 1.
The booklet is untitled because titles provide an easy, ready-made means of classification, and once classified we would be constituted as a school . . . We do not want to read of 'A. D. Hope, the most outstanding Jinglejuggler' or of 'Garry Lyle, the leader of the Pointless School' or of 'that flaming archpriest of Neo-Bomboism, Harry Hooton' . . . it is simply the co-operative effort of three dissimilar poets to discover a medium of publication unhampered by editorial, ideological or commercial fetters, one which has no creed to justify, no backers to mollify and no shareholders to satisfy.61
A year later, in 1944, NUMBER TWO was produced and featured Hope and Hooton again. It also introduced Hooton's old friend, the teacher Oliver Somerville. Lyle was in New Guinea, but promised to appear again in issue number three. NUMBER TWO was printed on a small press that Somerville had purchased with John Sillett and on which they had just published the anonymous and scurrilous book of satire, The First Boke of Fowle Ayres.62 Although the work of many hands, the most notable contributor was James McAuley, who appeared with a selection of highly blasphemous poems, verses like 'My Heart Belongs To Daddy' that he would later disown. Both publications also poked fun at the Australian literary scene, at the Jindyworobaks and Max Harris in particular. But these were small squibs compared to the explosion that was to come.
The Ern Malley hoax marked for attack what little modernism there was in Australian literature and killed it. Both McAuley and Harold Stewart single-handedly determined the course that Australian writing would not take. Almost half a century later, the conservative consequences ,still reverberate. Ironically, Max Harris reviewed Things You See When You Haven't Cot A Gun in one line in the Ern Malley issue of Angry Penguins, 'Our anarchist bull careers madly through his intellectual fog.'63
Hooton sided with the attack on Angry Penguins for a number of reasons. For a start, the whole affair validated the argument of These Poets. Writers were at last catching up with him, or so it seemed. Next, there was the problem of direction. The ultra-nationalism of the Jindyworobak poets, a movement that never really caught on, was now a spent force. The bush ballads were also finished; literature was on the lookout for new forms. This was at precisely the same time as the full force of modernist painting was beginning to develop in Australia, not to mention the arrival of the GIs and jazz. In the hothouse atmosphere that Australian culture found itself in during the war, modern Australian literature opted for the direction of surrealism and an exploration of the subconscious, which many interpreted as a move to decadence.64 Hooton saw it simply as lacking in politics, that the modernists were philosophically irresponsible. However, it was shortsighted of him not to apply the same criticism to those poets who purported to be his friends but whose true intentions were to be arbiters of taste from the towers of various academies. Hooton later had this to say of them.
There were three poets of some promise in Australia but none of them has anything remotely vital to say. One has been awarded a scholarship to study philosophy in ancient China, the other has fallen for the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. The third is still pondering the problem of an aching phallus and a vacant vagina.65
Hooton was never a modernist. In fact, he fought against many aspects of modernism and attacked the works of Joyce and Pound most vehemently.66 His views on Joyce brought him into conflict with Professor Anderson of the Philosophy Department of Sydney University. Anderson, an opinionated Scot, arrived in Sydney like a breath of fresh air in 1927 and held this chair till 1958, by which time he had moved from the radical left to a more conservative position. It was Anderson who introduced Joyce into Australia. In his time in Sydney he influenced a number of generations of undergraduates, who gathered together in the Freethought Society, the Libertarians and, more socially, the Push.
Hooton stood in an ambiguous relation to Anderson, the Philosophy Department and universities in general. By the end of the war he was already referring to his own philosophical position as The Line, which he contrasted with Andersonian Shit. Philosophically Hooton was against universities, but he gravitated towards them for intelligent conversation and argument, mainly with undergraduates.
At Australian universities the immediate post-war years were made more interesting as older returned soldiers were awarded scholarships for further study. Hooton delivered numerous papers to various campus societies, papers on Wilde, Joyce, Nietzsche and Whitman, and on issues such as William Dobell's Archibald Prize controversy. Unfortunately, no record of these meetings appears to have survived. What does exist, loudly and clearly, is Hooton's conclusion on academics. 'If someone outside the university has an original idea, he's a crank; if someone inside a university has an original idea, it'll be a miracle.'67
I am, if I am not exaggerating my position here, always present in their minds - but always an unpleasant reminder to them of the real things ... However ... my main sphere of operations is in the coffee-shops, pubs, at home, with people - the sustenance and source anyway of any artistic struggle. By word of mouth I am a force in Australia.68
This did not endear him to the swots. For the next fifteen years, as Hooton's reputation grew overseas, his position in Australian letters diminished till he was marginalised as another bohemian guru. This did not unduly worry Hooton. 'What is the use of converting our enemies? - they only disrupt our ranks.'69
All this time Hooton was busy working on his philosophical treatise. Titled Militant Materialism, Hooton was never to finish it, though he did complete five of its eight chapters.70 Those who knew its contents thought it a seminal work. This is what John Hargrave wrote in 1970.
I must stress the lasting value and the still unrecognised new directive in his closely reasoned and astonishingly exuberant assertions. They deserve the sustained intellectual analysis and careful consideration that they have most certainly not yet had ... it will be the joke of all time when an Australian drover (from Yorkshire, England) knocks the bottom out of academic 'logic' once and for all! 71
All the while Hooton produced magazines. Number Three (1948) was to be the last of the untitled booklets. It only contained Hooton and Hooton's tribute to Oliver Somerville who had been killed in a car crash.72 Three issues of MS came next, in 1950 and 1951, printed by Edwards and Shaw and featuring Hooton along with the engineer Jim McGuire (who had been involved with Max Harris on the Angry Penguins Broadsheet), Don Everingham, Dick Woodward, J. B. Semler, Lex Banning, Richard Appleton and a last appearance by A. D. Hope. Hooton also worked on two issues of Language, edited by Geoffrey Mill, in 1952 at Sydney University. Featured in both of these publications was a new name, Robert Cumming.
Bob Cumining was a musician who played the violin in variety shows in Perth. He enlisted in the navy and was on the Kuttabul on the night of 31 May/ 1 June 1942 when the boat was attacked by a Japanese midget submarine in Sydney harbour. After the war he stayed on in Sydney, working as a professional musician. Then he met Hooton. This is the way the story is told. I don't know if anyone can verify its actual truth.
Cumming was sitting in the old Moccador coffee lounge in Market Street, dressed in a dinner suit, ready to go to work playing in Frank Coughlan's Band at the Trocadero in George Street. He looked pretty dispirited and Hooton, whom he'd never met, came over to him and said, 'You're looking unhappy.' Bob was very blue and said that he didn't like going on night after night in a dance band playing funny songs. Hooton replied, 'Why don't you get out?' About a week later, in the middle of a number, Cumming thought, that man's right, and just got up and walked out of the Trocadero while the band played on, gave his trombone away to the nearest passer-by and went back to the Moccador to look for Hooton. That was the last time Bob Cumming appeared as a professional musician. He turned to writing and he and Harry became inseparable friends.73
At this stage, for money, Hooton had various scams going whereby his friends supported him, some giving him a weekly stipend. Hooton looked upon this as a wage and was not above asking for an increase as the cost of living went up.74 Hooton was now living with Margaret Elliott (later Fink), whom he'd met in 1952. Margaret Elliott was a teacher of art and Judy Smith remembers sitting in their couple of rooms in a very pleasant old house at the bottom of Wilde Street, Potts Point, with Hooton talking philosophy while Margaret sewed dresses or put up hems. On Sunday nights the place became a salon. Many now think of Hooton as a guru.
People dropped into Harry's place from all sorts of bohemia ... The best thing about Harry was that he was so bloody entertaining, he was a very funny talker. And that's why you don't like to think of guru because guru implies earnestness, seriousness, and Harry wasn't like that at all. He didn't do anything like plug the line, people didn't sit at his feet adoringly - conversations were two way, they were arguments, they were good-natured arguments, and they were always funny arguments if Harry had anything to do with them. Because he was a very funny talker, and a very gentle person who wrote like an iconoclast.75
At the same time Hooton was extending his connections with a growing number of people overseas. Apart from a few obvious people such as James Boyer May, who edited Trace, and Leslie Woolf Hedley, who edited Inferno, more research needs to be done on this aspect of Hooton's life. The connections are tantalising - Japan, India, Greece, South Africa, England, France, New Zealand, the USA. Edwin Morrisby had this to say in 1975. 'In the early fifties he was in touch with groups in California, who were just beginning the life-style that culminated in the Flower People'.76 This sounds like an exaggeration till it is pointed out that Hooton had corresponded with counter-culture figures like Tuli Kupferberg, a member of the nihilist rock group The Fugs.77 Not many can claim such prescience.
All of this correspondence had a purpose. It was to aid in creating what Hooton would call The Best Magazine in the World - 2]st Century. The Magazine of a Creative Civilization. The first issue appeared in September 1955.
We are sick of the past. London, Paris, New York, Moscow are dead. Like Rome, Athens, Babylon, they have had their day. The sun has indeed gone down on the west, and on the east. You could knock on the doors of the old world with a new idea till your knuckles were red-raw and bleeding, through all eternity; they would not hear you- there is no-one at home.78
The reviews were mixed, but it was a start.
While there is much that may be pure 19th Century about most of Australia's literary magazines (in, say, the 'liberalism' of 'Meanjin', the stuffiness of 'Southerly', the rough-neck-ism of the 'Bulletin'. and the inverted Henry Lawson unionism of 'Overland'), '21st Century' in this, its first September issue, is at least 20th Century.79
The second issue appeared two years later.
A share in the largest painting in the world.
We were going to have a uranium cover for this issue but it proved too expensive. We then chose glass, but someone broke it. We finished reverting to paint. Our artists couldn't think of anything to paint (who can?) so it is an ,abstract'. (You are in direct contact with the artists- although some used fly-sprays and watering-cans; it has not been sullied by contact with a machine.) This could be, in extent at least, the greatest painting in the modern world; it covers 750 square feet, now cut up into 1000 segments, each one of which provides the buyer with an original, unique work of art. One patron of the arts might have bought the complete edition and saved us a lot of trouble; but as it is we will have to find a thousand different buyers.80
I have always mistrusted the explanation that someone was ahead of their time. It is an absurdity. I would rather argue that Hooton was of his time while the majority of progressive artists and thinkers in Australia lagged far behind. Hooton called himself the poet and philosopher of the twenty- first century because he thought that was how long it would take before his ideas would be understood. The last quote is a case in point. The introduction to 21st Century and the cover itself are quite extraordinary cultural products, yet their existence continues to be ignored in favour of similar works from outside Australia.
The second cover was influenced by Bob Klippel because he'd just been to Paris and seen Riopelle's paintings who influenced Jackson Pollock. And no-one had heard of jackson Pollock at this stage. Klippel said, oh, they don't paint with brushes anyrnore, all Riopelle does is fling paint around. It sounded mad. Good, we'll do that for the cover, Harry said, so we did that and you can see the covers. It was quick off the mark, wasn't it.81
When the Australian National Gallery purchased Jackson Pollock's Blue Poles (1952) in 1973 for 1.2 million dollars there was an outrage: it was as if Blue Poles had been another hoax painted by Ern Malley.
There is a poignant letter from the South Australian branch of the Fellowship of Australian Writers inviting Harry Hooton to attend the second Adelaide Festival in 1962. Unfortunately, Hooton had been dead for five months.82 One cannot blame death for Hooton's critical neglect. However, it is a cruel irony that Hooton could not be around in a decade that saw the rise of self-publishing on a scale not seen before in Australia; a decade that questioned everything, whose catch-cry was DO IT; a decade that saw the questioning of every authority structure, be it public or private. The huge technological changes that have happened in the thirty years since Hooton's death have not produced many philosophers or artists capable of dealing with the speed of the changes wrought on what is supposed to be the natural environment. Hooton's message has not dated in the slightest - do not blame human beings, they are perfect. Make sure you control things instead. Death only played into the hands of his enemies in so far as it robbed Hooton of examples.
Every so often we read staggering statistics showing that motor cars have killed more people in this century than two world wars, but before we have to fully register this fact, we are met by a billion times greater weight of words in newspapers, broadcasts, official reports, which tell us we must police, punish, psychiatrise etc. the drivers . . . We are to have stiffer tests for driving licenses, blood tests to determine drunkenness, more patrols, heavier fines, penalties and imprisonment imposed at enormous costs on men. We are conditioned to see the problem as-what are we to do with irresponsible murderers? The answer however is simple. We will do nothing with the drivers, but we can and we must do something with the cars. We can counter these accidents with design. We can install radar-controlled steering which will make any collision with anything on the road physically impossible ... the driver just sits there. He can be drunk, read a book, look out of the window, fall asleep-he can hit 100 miles an hour with 100% safety for himself and others. . . It is matter which kills, not man. It is the gun which pulls the trigger in fact-certainly the gun, the car, the material thing is the only thing we can do anything with.83
His philosophy was never pure, always applied. In that sense Hooton was always a philosopher of the future, always utopic.
In 1960 Hooton left for Melbourne, where he took a job sorting mail at the GPO. It was there, while living with Jan Barber, that he fell critically ill. At first Hooton thought that the medical examinations would prove benign, but that was not to be the case. The cancer was terminal.
16 March 1961
I'll spare you the details of the hospital, except to say that convalescence for colostomy is a long business, so I'm still pretty weak. But it has its bright side - I should be able to get a lot of writing done. The ordeal also has a somewhat comic, ironic significance-if I can appreciate the joke. As you know, it has been written of me that, 'Hooton is no introspective looker at his own navel'. This operation has turned me back to front, so that I am obliged, in a most intimate sense, to have my stomach confronting me under my nose. It's sort of making the punishment fit the 'crime' to have me, of all people, turned inwardly to contemplate my own bodily aches and pains.
This sickness has disrupted my plans, but I don't think I shall try to publish a magazine again. I shall publish myself.
30 March 1961
to get the harrowing part over first, the doctors' average estimate of what's left of my life is, or was three months. I've got through six weeks. There's no doubting the serious condition of my inside-cancer of the rectum has spread to and through the lyrnphs and the pelvis area. This, on its own might have been isolated to give me twelve months or more of unpleasant life. Luckily I have a personal friend, a doctor who can see me through this painful period with complete care. However, things are complicated by the cancer having a hold on my liver. In our present state of medical knowledge they can do nothing about it, and it moves fast. It may, could, knock me any minute, hence the short time allowed. As against this, though I've lost weight, I am strong. Everyone, including my doctors, is amazed at my condition. But I can't kid myself, sometimes I can feel the worst. Then I fluctuate, fight back. The one consolation seems to be that, as against the pain usually associated with this, the end could be relatively easy. The difficulty would seem to be keeping nourished. So we can't be certain.
In the meantime I am writing. I think a book will appear, I hope before I disappear, which I have had time to prepare down to the last letter. It solved a problem. One of my reasons for stressing my poems is that they are the logical lead up to my philosophy. Anyone can be a poet, 'philosophers' are supposed to have academic backgrounds and sanctions. When asked what I consider the most important thing to print first I couldn't make up my mind between poetry and philosophic prose. I have put both in this book. I have included over 100 prose directions. These contain my philosophy, and are reminders to those who prefer me in prose that there is this vast theoretical context. This, as you would expect, is keeping my morale up.
We expect to go to Sydney within a week. I'll let you know our address immediately. Don't be over-disturbed. I am making this a short letter precisely because I have to resume the labour of love of writing right now. I have never felt so much like writing and, of course, we are INDESTRUCTIBLE.
As always, Harry.84
Harry's friends rallied around and brought him back to Sydney where Dr Rocky Meyers, the Push doctor, provided him with pills and financial support. Jan Barber looked after him and wrote down his letters as he dictated them, ever positive. But it was the end. Hooton saw proof copies of his last book, It Is Great To Be Alive, published by Margaret Elliot just before he died. Harry Hooton died peacefully in his sleep and was cremated in the Eastern Suburbs crematorium. Of all the people who mourned his final disappearance, Bob Cumming was possibly the most inconsolable. On the night after his death there was a table of Harry's friends at Vadim's at Kings Cross and one of them, Bob, was seen weeping and saying, 'I can't go on, life is meaningless without Harry. There's nothing else to do but kill myself.' Bob was known as a melancholy and sometimes violent drunk, so no one took much notice.
On the day of Hooton's funeral the mourners learned of Bob Curnming's death. Cumming had collected all of what remained of Hooton's pills and, in a bed-sit in North Sydney, committed suicide.
Twenty-five years later, at Rocky's funeral, I went looking for Hooton's remains. My enquiries drew a blank. Since no one had bothered to claim his ashes, the law required that they be appropriately disposed of. So Harry Hooton, poet and philosopher of the twenty-first century, was interred, appropriately, in a common grave.
For ordinarv people
For ordinary people
Ordinary people are
My poems are purgatives
For extraordinary people
Stupefied by education people
To bring them up to the level of ordinary people
Who know too much to read
And so do not need