Freedom and The Push
Like the grasshopper in the fable, they lazed in the sun or in the gloom of a hotel bar, gambling, drinking, fornicating and endlessly talking. John Tranter on The Push.
At 18 I was disaffected and restless. Fashion bored me; I tried on ideas. I considered joining the Communist party, the police, a Buddhist monastery; I went to a fundamentalist church and eagerly awaited visions; I hitch-hiked to the Cross with backpackers and drank cask wine with street kids. I fought with my friends and read indiscriminately: Anna Karenina; 1984; Keats, Blake and, of course, Plath; Virginia Woolf and Anais Nin; Hesse, Freud and Jung. There were no Australian writers; I wanted other. Nothing was big or tragic enough for me; I wanted extremes and discomfort, in literature as in life. And then, one day in a book shop in Sydney in January 1988, I found a copy of The Female Eunuch.
I still remember the body-blow it was, reading it. Nothing prepared me for its searing intelligence; even if I didn’t agree with, or even understand, all of its arguments or observations, the way it planted its feet, put its hands on its hips and made confident assertions about the world was utterly compelling. It talked about female experience; it ws refreshingly direct; it spoke a truth that nothing else I had read described. When I finished it, I wanted to know: who was Germaine Greer, and where did she come from?
Where Germaine came from – and where the style of argument that underwrote The Female Eunuch came from – was The Push.
The Push was a bunch of libertarians of different stripes, who got together in the pubs of downtown Sydney for three decades from the late 1940s. They argued about equality and freedom; they drank at the pub and gambled at the racetrack; they had sex with whoever they wanted without emotional attachment – in theory, anyway. They believed in the idea of permanent protest, taking the view that governments, no matter their political persuasion, ended up behaving in the same, freedom-curbing way. Most of all, they believed in cutting through the ‘bullshit’ of everyday ideas, questioning, questioning, questioning all the way.
The Push had no interest in promoting any cause or persuading anyone to join it, so when it fizzled out in the 1970s, it left few traces of itself outside of Sydney. But it influenced a huge number of people: Clive James, Barry Humphries, Margaret Fink, Eva Cox, Germaine Greer, Paddy McGuiness, and later, Anne Summers and Wendy Bacon – people who are unknown to anyone under 20 today.
The Sydney of the 1950s was divided between slums and suburbs, and if you wanted excitement, there was the Cross, the UK or The Push. The Push was tantalizing to young, restless people, and in the novel, I wanted to see what would happen if I put two lively, restless girls under its spell. I’ve always been fascinated by how ideas of decorum can change over a single generation; like Bye, Beautiful, The Push also explores the idea of two generations rubbing uncomfortably against each other.
The quotes at the beginning of the chapters in The Push are from the Women’s Weekly, which from the mid 1950s had an advice column for ‘teenagers’ as they were becoming known; the published letters showed a lot of anxiety over what was proper behaviour around members of the opposite sex, as well as stern advice about taking yourself in hand, getting a grip, or putting up and shutting up. My favourite is, ‘Sit at home and wake up to yourself as a girl who wants to have her cake and eat it, too, or learn tatting to fill in the lonely hours’, closely followed by ‘Bad breath is most unpleasant to suffer, but I really feel that cigarette breath can hardly be classified as bad’. Reading those columns, you can get an idea of how stark a shock it would have been to come across The Push, with its good-looking , intelligent men and women completely disdainful of ‘decorum’. Although the women of The Push later complained of their treatment at the hands of Push men, they were positively liberated compared to their mothers and sisters, despite the real risks they took in flouting conventions like remaining a virgin until marriage.
The Push taught Germaine Greer intellectual rigour and, probably more importantly, intellectual bluntness, the same bluntness that is evident in The Female Eunuch – the bluntness that took my breath away as an 18 year old. Its influence is still with her: a recent Sydney University graduation ceremony, she was quoted as saying, ‘Freedom only exists insofar as you are prepared to exercise it’ – a classic Push position.
When I finally got to university, I discovered that The Push’s ideas were still influencing young thinkers and activists. I finally got to live out the ideas I had only read about – to test them out and decide which ones to keep, and which ones to turn away from. I also learnt about the huge divide between theory and practice, lessons that Push women had experienced, sometimes painfully, a generation or more earlier. The Push is not a book about ideas per se, but how ideas – especially ideas about freedom – can and do change lives, in small ways and in large. I hope my readers will finish this book and think in a new way about the world they live in – and, most importantly, to think about what freedom is, and where it begins.