Brian Penton, writer, bohemian and editor

Brian Penton (1904-1951) would surely have achieved the status of the most memorable journalist and commentator in postwar Australia but he died in his prime and left too many enemies to achieve the reputation that he deserved. This article by his biographher Patrick Buckridge, starts with a story of the time he insulted the son of Winson Churchill at a dinner organised by Frank Packer and so enraged Randolph Churchill that he stormed out, not to return that evening. The point of the story is to indicate how easy it was for Penton to make enemies. When he took up sailing and owned his own boat he was known as The Admiral because he made sure eveyone knew who was in charge.

Penton was born in Brisbane and left school at the age of fourteen to make an early start in journalism with the Brisbane Courier. At nineteen he travelled to England and worked as a freelance journalist for eighteen months before returning to Australia to join the Sydney Morning Herald. In 1929 he returned to England, acting as business manager for Jack Lindsay’s Franfolico Press. That episode ended, typically, in prolonged litigation with one of the business partners.

Walking in a London park he met a Hungarian economist, named Kahane. They became friends and collaborators in the English translation of Socialism by Ludwig Mises. This brush with the cutting edge of anti-socialist thought served Penton well in later years when he challenged the pillars of the “Australian Settlement” (White Australia, tariffs and central wage fixing) long before they came under widespread attack.

Some extracts from the Buckridge story.

“From the time of his first appearance on the Sydney journalistic scene with irreverent descriptions ¢â¬â for the Herald of all newspapers! ¢â¬â of the state governor’s verbena underwear, and the governor-general’s undignified joyride in a Widgeon seaplane, Penton was notorious; and by the time he left the paper to go overseas in 1929, he had become controversial. As the anonymous (but widely-known) author of a satirical daily column, ‘From the Gallery’, on the goings-on in the state and federal parliaments, he wrote amusing, sometimes judiciously analytical, but more often biting pen-portraits of most of the major players and a sprinkling of minors.”

“But by 1928 Sydney had begun to pall. Penton and his wife Olga had both begun to develop serious ambitions as writers and they spent the next couple of years in England trying, without success, to publish their first novels, though they at least gained entree into some of London’s less fashionable literary circles. It was an opportunity for Penton to elaborate and enrich ¢â¬â if mainly for his own satisfaction ¢â¬â an identity as a cultural intellectual of a particular kind: self-consciously marginal, radically individualist, morally libertarian, and committed to a principle of active but unsystematic intervention in the social process.”

“This role was developed with reference to an increasing range of models, past and present: Norman Lindsay, of course, for many years; but also, for a time, D.H. Lawrence, for whom Penton wrote a Bulletin obituary in 1930 praising him above all for the ‘love of fight’ he also admired in Lindsay and Billy Hughes. A more exotic model was John Wilkes, the radical eighteenth-century politician, editor and noted lecher who fascinated Penton all his life. H. L Mencken, the American journalist and polymath, scourge of the ‘Comstockery’ and ‘backwoods mentality’ of the modern puritan tradition, was another of Penton’s heroes ¢â¬â and some of his friends, gratifyingly enough, saw him at the time as an ‘Australian Mencken’ in the making.”

“When Penton returned to Sydney towards the end of 1933 to take up a position on the pre-Packer Telegraph, his version of himself as a ‘stirrer’ could be articulated in very sophisticated terms. No mere populist muckraker, Penton saw himself as a serious social critic inheriting and carrying forward the values of two distinct intellectual traditions. One was the political tradition of ‘classical English liberalism’, from Locke through John Wilkes to Gladstone and Deakin; the other was the much older and more diverse literary tradition of libertine individualism, that included the likes of Petronius, Rabelais, Shakespeare, Cervantes and Sterne ¢â¬â and of course Lawrence, Huxley and Norman Lindsay in the modern era. The two traditions, while broadly congruent, have some key differences of emphasis, notably in relation to liberal conceptions of a ‘common good’ in society, a notion to which Penton was increasingly drawn.”

“In the early 1930s, though, it was the more insistent individualism of the literary tradition that dominated his journalistic style and his cultural preoccupations. These appeared very engagingly in the daily column he wrote for the Telegraph in 1934- 35, the Sydney Spy, in which he ranged across a wide spectrum of issues, on all of which he had definite opinions: censorship, religion, education, journalism, music, literature, popular culture, feminism, the Aborigines, nationality and nationalism, democracy, ethics, and the implications of relativity and quantum physics, to name the most frequent. The menu was surprisingly intellectual for the Sydney Telegraph as it then was ¢â¬â a cheerfully unpretentious broadsheet with a reputation for innovative graphic design and a strong interest in Hollywood and sport. Accordingly, Penton leavened the mix with occasional celebrity interviews ¢â¬â people like Krishnamurti, Jack Davey, Major Douglas and Harold Larwood.”

“From as early as 1943, Penton was beginning to frame his thinking about Australia and the world in more positive, ‘reconstructive’ terms. In his second, longer monograph Advance Australia ¢â¬â Where? (1943), written mainly for the British and American markets, he outlined a version of a new order somewhat different from the state-regulated model favoured by intellectuals associated with the ministry of post-war reconstruction such as ‘Nugget’ Coombs and Lloyd Ross.15 For Penton, as for some others on the moderate Right, the war had shown the desirability of closer co-operation between government and industry, but not at the price of economic and social isolation: ‘The only kind of new order that offers Australia any long future is a world of equalised opportunity ¢â¬â a world of freer trade, common currency, racial tolerance, and common aims.'”

“What Penton was proposing in 1943-44, ironically, was pretty close to what the Hawke/Keating governments tried to deliver some forty years later: a re-organisation of primary production on more cost-effective and less environmentally destructive lines, and a general lowering of tariffs and immigration barriers, aimed at integrating Australia into its geographic region. Some of the more radically alternative realities he envisaged ¢â¬â the peaceful and gradual ‘Asianisation’ of Australian society, and the elimination of State governments, for example ¢â¬â no longer look so far off. Others, like the relocation of Australia’s heavy industrial plant to Britain, where it could be better defended, look distinctly looney ¢â¬â but didn’t at the time; and there are surprisingly few in that category.”

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2021 years ago

Interesting write up, Rafe; must admit I’d never heard of the man, but I’ll look further afield now. Cheers,