Of The Digger, the counter-culture, and Helen Garner

In 1972, having already published two pop-culture papers, I started a more serious project: a fortnightly newspaper written by and for people who were part of Australia’s unfolding counter-culture. We were the first post-World-War-2 generation, and what we were countering was the culture of our elders, every bit of it. In the late 60s through the early 70s, thousands of new initiatives burst forth from this felt need to redesign the way we live, and one of them was our newspaper, which we called The Digger.

November 1972 issue of Digger featuring Helen Garner's first contribution

November 1972 issue of Digger featuring Helen Garner's first contribution

My first mate in this venture was an American journalist named Bruce Hanford, who said our biggest challenge was finding good writers and one prospect I knew of through mutual friends was a high school teacher named Helen Garner. She and I met for a Jamaican dinner in Carlton the week of Digger’s first issue, and she asked me “Why did you print that stupid story about Daddy Cool’s drummer and groupies?”

“I think we were scared no one would buy a paper about alternatives,” I ventured, “so we pitched the cover to rock music fans.”

“It was awful,” she said, “and no one except teenage wankers would have read it”. She was right, and admirably forthright. Fortunately, the curry, the wine, and talking about what might be in future issues improved the vibe, and we resolved to see each other again -- soon.

By October, Digger had published six issues of good stuff on abortion, drugs, Aboriginal rights, pornography, AFL footy, Pine Gap, and music. Helen and I were in love with each other and several other people each (it was the 70s) and when her no-longer-attached husband Bill agreed to look after their three-year-old Alice for a weekend, Hels came to visit me in Sydney.

We talked, ate, listened to Will the Circle Be Unbroken, and shared innumerable joints with Jon and Ponch Hawkes who had introduced us just weeks before. Ponch, who’d been struggling to get the mostly male Diggers to focus on feminist issues, was thrilled that Helen was now inside our inner circle, albeit as a guest. Much of our talk that weekend was about love and sex, and unraveling the lies and ties that bind us on both fronts – and then she had to catch a plane back to Melbourne to teach at Fitzroy High School.

A week later I was back in Digger’s South Melbourne house, reading the story Helen had left on my desk -- her first submission to The Digger. The opening paragraph told me that tumultuous days lay ahead, and I couldn’t wait.

“One afternoon last week my form one kids and I were about to [discuss] Greece,” her story began. Each kid had a book with photos of marble statues of women and men, some of them naked. Students from previous years had drawn outrageous adornments on the images -- eg “a monstrous cock … with a colossal stream of sperm hitting a woman on the facing page who is modestly demonstrating the folds of the Ionian chiton.” So Helen is now facing 29 excited girls and boys aged 12-13, and her uncontrollable response is to laugh. Immediately, all these kids, mostly from poor families recently migrated from Mediterranean countries, are laughing too – until Helen holds up a hand and says, “Look, the reason why people do these drawings … is that sex is more interesting than just about anything else, and [kids] don't know nearly as much about it as they need to. Do you want to talk about it?”

She describes herself answering all their questions, after establishing that everyone should call things by their common names. She has the shocked attention of every one of her students like never before, and, I figured, of every Digger reader too.

For its headline, I quoted the first question on the pile that Helen picked up and read. It said “Why does the women have all the pain Miss?”

I ran the story on page 3, signifying it as important, but not news like the fact that touring British rocker Joe Cocker was being deported by the Liberal government for pot possession (thus helping Gough Whitlam’s Labor Party win the elections a month later, ending 23 years of conservative rule).

Only one Digger reader sent a coherent letter, which lamented that the anonymous teacher had not even mentioned homosexuality. Two far more outraged readers were the Fitzroy High caretakers named Mr and Mrs Lack who discovered that this class was in their school – and thus, the shit hit the fan. Melbourne daily papers and talk radio went nuts and Mrs Garner was suspended by the Department of Education. The Victorian Teachers Union went on strike in support of this teacher who’d told her class that yes, she had sucked a cock… but the bureaucrats had their way and Helen Garner was soon a household name, but an unemployed one.

I hired Helen to be a new Digger editor (at our standard rate of $40 a week). Informed by Bruce Hanford’s two-hour course on how to be an investigative reporter, she wrote excellent pieces for The Digger, before switching to writing novels and non-fiction books that fix their subjects with an unflinching gaze.

Helen has said that she long ago resolved to become dispassionate. In a letter she wrote me in July 1972 she said she wished to “become solitary”, but I don’t believe she did that, or became dispassionate. She understood how desperate form 1E kids were to know, so she explained. Years later, she tried to comprehend why a law student deliberately gave her boyfriend a lethal overdose, and why a man might drown his kids, or a woman might drown hers. Helen might have taught herself to look at death without fainting, but she pursues all her stories passionately, scraping the rust and mold from our culture to reveal its true shape -- like the Digger set out to do 45 years ago.


The full text of Garner's Digger article from November 1972 is the next post (chronologically) on this blog.

Phillip Frazer4 Comments