Category Archives: reminiscences

Congratulations SHS

am 0301 That is, to Sydney Boys Highs School and Sydney Girls High School, side by side since 1927-8, and this year celebrating 150 years service to education in NSW. Yes, I have a stake, as I went to Sydney High — there’s the evidence on the left — and indeed saw the 75th anniversary! I have also taught in both schools, though mainly at SBHS.

mine 009


See also My English teachers 1.

I should also mention that in another life this site was the Sydney Boys High School English and ESL Site. That does not mean the school endorses everything on it, of course, but I did begin this to support the English/ESL students I worked with from 2001 to 2005. I taught (on and off) at SBHS from 1985 to 2005.

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Posted by on October 20, 2008 in 1950s, boys education, nostalgia, reminiscences


My English Teachers 5: Bill Maidment (revisited)

See my earlier entry where I mention a problem with the Quadrant site. This is now fixed, and “Men Without Borders” by Neil McDonald is back online.

It was Maidment’s ability to analyse every nuance of an individual passage of literature, elucidating the rhythm, symbolism and allusions, then to place it in the context of the work as a whole—all the while keeping us aware of the period when it was written—that was of special value to us all as film critics and teachers. In addition, there was his deep understanding of imagery, traditional emblems, heraldry and associations with the paintings of the period of the work being examined. Unlike many contemporary critics, Maidment was particularly good at defining a genre, exploring precisely how it related to other literary forms…

I learnt from Bill to ask these questions about any film or literary work I was examining: What does it mean? What did it mean when it was first released or published? What is it about? What is it really about? What does it assume? What does it assert? And what does it imply? …

Bill Maidment’s influence on my work was, I believe, more extensive. I first encountered him when I enrolled in his Eighteenth-Century Literature option in 1963. It was a small group, and we soon became friends. Even after I began to write Shakespearean criticism, Bill continued as mentor and friend. When my first article on Macbeth was rejected in 1964, he was there with encouragement and advice: “Certainly it has some rough edges, but it deserves to be published.” And it was, by Frank Moorhouse no less.

OFTEN OVERLOOKED by even his warmest admirers was how good a Shakespearean critic Maidment was. Only very recently he pointed out to me how the breaking of even the most trivial of oaths had a religious significance in Elizabethan England—very difficult to convey to a modern mainstream audience. Consequently when Kenneth Branagh adapted Love’s Labour’s Lost to the screen, he needed the wartime setting to create an appropriately serious modern equivalent to explain the lovers’ partings. When I was teaching Shakespeare using the Elizabethan theatre models made by my father, it was Maidment who pointed out that the playhouse itself was part of the play’s imagery. This coupling of imagery and form became vital when I worked on Shakespearean film. It was Bill who alerted me to the way Orson Welles played cinematic variations on Shakespeare’s imagery as well as enhancing the word pictures with visual equivalents…

The intellectual rigour and sceptical tolerance Bill instilled in his students gave us the confidence to see through, refute and ultimately systematically ignore the jargon-infested discourse theorists, open and covert Marxists and dogmatic gender-studies experts—who have come close to destroying film studies in recent years. There was really no debate: their want of elementary film scholarship made them easy game whenever they wrote or spoke to anyone but each other. There would be lots of eye-rolling, heavy sighs and throat clearing, but rarely any argument. Quadrant readers have, in a way, experienced this phenomenon for themselves. I have only to raise a political issue for the letters column to be filled with missives of dissent. I have even taken issue with our editor! And this is as it should be: a journal of ideas like ours is no place for unquestioned opinion. But when I accused the New South Wales Board of Studies of compelling students to misrepresent their set films for ideological reasons in my article “How Not to Teach Film”, and attacked jargon-ridden film criticism in “Screen Studies and Lantana”, the silence was deafening…

AS A MAN Bill Maidment was gentlemanly and unassuming to a fault. In his prime he was very handsome, but dressed down as if he feared any sartorial display would distract from his teaching. All Bill’s students know of his battle with his stammer, which, in the early 1960s, threatened to destroy his career as a teacher. By the way—who, today, would hire a lecturer with a stammer? Professor Wesley Milgate did, and gave the English department at the University of Sydney one of its greatest scholars and teachers of the last century. So how did Bill survive as a lecturer? He had Milgate’s support, and the students didn’t want to forgo what this unassuming, brilliant man had to offer. I remember vividly how we would simply sit there, willing him to keep going so we could make our notes and read or re-read the text he was discussing, knowing we were getting insights that few other lecturers could provide.

The stammer too was the basis of some of the best Maidment stories. No one dared so much as move during his lectures for fear it would put him off! So when, during a lecture on D.H. Lawrence, Bill mentioned that the writer’s sexual problems were rooted in his relationship with his mother, there was dead silence. The class remained quiet when he added that Lawrence’s sexuality was also rooted in the English Puritan tradition, and continued to be silent as Bill used the same word to describe a whole range of other influences in which D.H. Lawrence was rooted. The joke that went around campus the next day was that Maidment had managed to root Lawrence fifteen times! When I mentioned the story to Bill, he couldn’t remember the incident, but added, “I’m sure there was some deep-seated Freudian significance.”

Interwoven with Bill’s battle with his stammer were the triumphs. These were the occasions when it was heard around campus that Bill Maidment was about to lecture on one of his many specialties, and it would be standing room only. These lectures would be received in hushed silence, followed by a rousing ovation at the conclusion. Ultimately Bill overcame his stammer by deciding that it simply didn’t matter…

Confirming and extending my own memories of this remarkable teacher.


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My English teachers 5: Bill Maidment

I am not a great fan of the right-wing magazine Quadrant, particularly in recent years, but there are good things in it — the poetry, for example, and most things written by Neil McDonald, so it is frustrating to find the Quadrant site seems to have been hacked just as I tried to track down what Neil McDonald said about Bill Maidment in the March 2005 issue. All I have is this fragment on eNotes:

ON APRIL 4, 2005, the former Associate Professor of English at the University of Sydney, W.M. Maidment, died shortly after receiving chemotherapy. Bill was a major influence on nearly four generations of students, scholars, teachers, historians, writers and artists of all kinds. His special areas of research and teaching were eighteenth-century literature, seventeenth-century poetry and the early twentieth-century novel. But Maidment never wrote a line of film criticism–so why am I beginning a film column with a tribute to his life and achievements?

His wide-ranging…

If I were a student still or a full-time teacher, by the way, I would subscribe to eNotes; it looks very useful.

So I was sad to read of Bill Maidment’s passing. We have already seen how, according to Michael Wilding, Maidment was “one of the old guard, the unreconstructed” in the eyes of Professor Sam Goldberg back in the early 1960s, and he was indeed in that position during my Honours year in 1964.

Bill Maidment was an Andersonian:

Anderson retired from the Challis Chair [of Philosophy] in 1958 having educated some of the most influential philosophers of the second half of the 20th century. He died in July 1962.

“Anderson stood for everything to which the Christian Idealists had been opposed. That he was prepared to describe himself as a materialist, a positivist, an empiricist, a realist, was sufficiently startling, for in Australian academic philosophy these had been terms of abuse. But even more disconcerting was the fact that he did not fit into the picture which Australian Idealists had constructed of their opponents – as in the fortress at Singapore, their guns were pointing in the wrong direction.”…

Studying philosophy under John Anderson inspired many students to become professional philosophers. Although the most famous of these were John Passmore, David Armstrong, John Mackie and Eugene Kamenka there were many who were less well known. These include Perce Partridge, Jim Baker, Ruth Walker, Tom Rose, George Molnar, etc. Apart from these professional philosophers, there were many who took a major degree in philosophy under Anderson and went on to pursue careers in the academic and non academic workplace. These include Frank Fowler, Harry Eddy, Bill Morison, Harry Nicolson, Bill Maidment, Margaret Mackie and many others. A full list of the `Andersonians’ would run to several hundred.

See also John Anderson remembered by Emeritus Professor David Armstrong (2005):

He is, arguably, the most important philosopher who has worked in Australia. Certainly he was the most important in both the breadth and depth of influence. Among the philosophers who got their original intellectual formation from Anderson are John Passmore, John Mackie, A.J. (‘Jim’) Baker, David Stove and myself. There are lots more. But for every student who became a philosopher there were far, far, more in the law, in medicine, in journalism, in other academic disciplines, that were profoundly influenced by him. I am inclined to think that, especially in the thirties and forties of the last century, Anderson was the person who set the agenda, and set the tone, for intellectual discussion in Sydney.

Anderson had philosophical views on almost everything. He tried to carry through his realist and empiricist views through metaphysics (the general nature of what there is), logic, epistemology, morality, political philosophy, theory of culture, aesthetics: there hardly seemed any serious intellectual topic on which he did not have a ‘line’.

The line always involved a great deal of debunking, the critique of illusions was central to it. In this he resembled what have been called the ‘masters of suspicion’: Marx, Freud and Nietzsche. One interesting thing about his thought, though, was that, while arguing that these thinkers had important points to make, he argued that they were themselves to be suspected. Indeed, I think it is fair to say that there was only one thinker that he did not treat with much suspicion: himself. That was a weakness.

He found it hard to come to terms with what most philosophers learn to live with: that other philosophers do not wholly agree with them. In a subject where decision procedures are so difficult to find and agree upon, living with disagreement seems the only rational course.

But this critique of illusions, always based on the same realist and empiricist principles, applied over a very wide field, and, it has to said, by an extremely intelligent thinker, was very attractive to intelligent students (compare Socrates’ following among the youth of Athens.) Sydney was a provincial town then (perhaps still is?) and you could learn from him a critique that would carry you through a wide range of topics and give you an education of quite a wide sort. It was a wonderful way to be introduced to philosophy. It gave many, including myself, their intellectual formation…

In keeping with that, I remember being bemused in 1962, I think it was, when our Distinction group had a session we thought quite odd on “Theory of Criticism” — or that may have been 1964 in my Honours Year! (Senior moment!) What I do know is that no-one had ever asked us before if a literary work was in the same order of reality as a packet of cornflakes! It isn’t such a damned fool question as we first thought either.

He also questioned, with some irony at the time, the idea we rather hugged to our bosoms that students of English were bearers of civilisation. That of course correctly challenged the whole Matthew Arnold tradition, and even more pertinently Leavisism.  Was he himself not a fake, he asked, since he had never read Shakespeare’s King John? And didn’t the fact that there were all those engineering students out there who couldn’t care less about what the English Department was up to make you wonder whether they might have a point? (A touch unfair to some engineers I have met, but we knew what he meant.) He never told us THE answers either… But he did make us think.

Yes, he had a dry sense of humour too, and many a tale of the Sydney Push.

In my early years of English he lectured us on the eighteenth century novel, around 500 of us packed into the Wallace Theatre. One of Bill’s difficulties was a dreadful stammer which stress made worse. One lecture he just could not get the next word out, flushing and stressing for all to see. The audience broke into spontaneous applause. Thanking us for the vote of confidence he carried on at last, finishing the lecture without another stammer. This was one of the most moving moments I ever had at Sydney University, and I am sure Bill would have remembered it too.

Back to Goldberg as well as Maidment: there is a review in Australian Humanities Review of Andrew Riemer’s memoir Sandstone Gothic, which I read with interest, by Stephen Knight (1998).

Andrew Riemer relates how a clever young man from Budapest strolled slowly into the monstrous cave of the Sydney University English Department, to emerge some forty years later with his body bruised by Leavisites, hair singed by the breath of theorists, clothing ripped by urgent feminists.

The faith that sustained him was learnt on the hard benches of the old quad from donnish men and one prima donna, Thelma Herring. They instructed him in the dates, biographies, sources and rhyme schemes of the major English authors, a litany of fetishised fact which amounted, they thought, and Andrew was persuaded, to civilisation…

The Leavisite brigades from Melbourne moved in, but were driven off after a few year’s academic trench warfare. Then came more assaults on civilised scholarship, from Australian Literature led by the charming menace of Countess Kramer; other figures move in the gathering gloom of Andrew’s nightmare — theorists with cries far from wordless, feminists imposing rights (and a few lefts), the politically correct with their always incorrect demands, and worst of all those who insist on giving students wide choice, and so weaken the defences of Castle Canonical, that bastion of the best that was ever thought and footnoted.

It’s a sad story in that Andrew really felt and lived this melodramatic misery. The witty and cultivated man who joined the department six months ahead of me did indeed like others grow psychic scar tissue from the antics of clever, intelligent, but rarely sensible man Sam Goldberg. Sadder yet is that the Sydney department’s only response to the Leavisite assault was to recoil into unargued faith in the old scholarship school of civilisation, a system actually out of date even at Oxford by the mid 1930s, as Brian Doyle (of Cardiff) outlines in his excellent book English and Englishness.

Not only a curriculum turned to stone. This book is the longest complaint I’ve read since Piers Plowman, and not as well written: Andrew’s usually rather elegant footwork often becomes a shuffle of semi-cliché. The Latinate old dons would have called this a liber querulus; they weren’t always wrong.

But the book also suffers from what is left out. Andrew’s account of thirty teaching years at Sydney lacks almost all the colour and vigour, indeed the contribution to civilisation, made by that members of that department. Staff and student involvement in the Vietnam debates, the Women’s Course strike, the bustling development of new local voices in poetry and prose. Charismatic — and sometimes eccentric — teachers were at work like Bill Maidment, Bernard Martin, Terry Sturm, Terry Threadgold, Jim Tulip.

True, some of the department’s electricity was somewhat negative, and lively people could be repelled into other more positive spheres like David Malouf, Nick Enright, David Marr, Dorothy Porter. But publishing, reviewing and a whole range of cultural carry-on was enlivened by campus identities like Michael Wilding, Don Anderson, Rosemary Creswell, Judy Barbour. From Vadims to the Hotel London, English staff helped cultures grow, subsidised Frank Moorhouse’s champagne, foresaw the future over flounder sandwiches at the Forest Lodge…

Ah, the Forest Lodge! I lived next door to it for a year in 1987! Saw a bit of it too a decade earlier when I was working at Sydney U myself…


The problem with the Quadrant site being fixed, I have published more details about Bill Maidment taken from Neil McDonald’s essay.


My English teachers 4: Sam Goldberg

You will find I have mentioned S L Goldberg (1926-1991) before: on Lines from a Floating Life and in the Big Archive. Back in 1964 he was just coming into his own as Challis Professor of English at the University of Sydney, having taken up his duties during 1963 when I had a year out working at the MLC Insurance Company in Martin Place where they vainly tried to seduce me into a business or legal career. The next few years were to see the English Department split in two, and by decade’s end Goldberg had gone. When I returned to Sydney University for a temporary secondment as a lecturer in 1977 he was just a memory, albeit with a few acolytes still hanging on, and a cricket team named in his honour, or in honour of his mentor the Downing College Cambridge literary critic F R Leavis.

In a 1999 article in The Australian Book Review Terry Collits recalls:

…migrating Leavisism first touched these shores at Perth, with the professorial appointment of a veritable ‘Scrutineer’, Allan Edwards. The word was brought across to Melbourne by Jock Tomlinson in the early 1950s, and Leavis was more or less the sign under which the brilliant younger brigade of the department (Goldberg himself, Maggie Tomlinson, David Moody and Vincent Buckley) set about revamping its pedagogy. The purists, the ‘true believers’, of the group were Goldberg and the Tomlinsons, and it was they who carried most influence with the honours students. Buckley was a special case: he himself had written a book on Leavis, but would not call himself a Leavisite; his personal influence, in Irish and Catholic circles, extended well beyond the English department and has been well recorded.

Goldberg was the rising star in academic English in Australia at this time. This was his hey-day as a teacher, attested by Germaine Greer and others who gravitated to English Honours at Melbourne in the ’50s. From the start his teaching took in wider agendas: he set up a ‘Lit. Club’ for staff and students to discuss books and issues and it was from papers presented in that forum that a serious critical journal, The Melbourne Critical Review, was established. Despite the worrying repetition of the name of Leavis, early numbers of the journal reflected the liberal pluralism of the department of Ian Maxwell, and included critics as diverse as A.D. Hope, Leonie Kramer, Andrew Taylor and Chris Wallace-Crabbe. Undergraduates, many like Wilbur Sanders and Ian Donaldson to go on to distinguished academic careers abroad, found space for their first publications in the Review, an astonishing fact in an otherwise strictly hierarchised Australian academy. Further, as the recalling of these names might indicate, English at Melbourne was by no means cut off from the literary community of the 1950s: the department housed, as it has right up to the present time, many a ‘creative writer’.

All this might suggest that one of the collective errors of judgment in those halcyon days was the abortive attempt to translate Australian Leavisism to Sydney, where for the Sydney natives it had all the appearance of a violent act of colonial appropriation. In Melbourne, Goldberg and the other Leavisites could live in a state of civilised friction within the greater department while achieving a high degree of hegemonic authority; in Sydney, they were greeted with a mistrust that quickly degenerated into collective paranoia. Besides, the overlooking of Wilkes for the Challis Professorship (the real Chair) while simultaneously appointing him to the newly-established Chair of Australian Literature laid the foundations for the struggle to the death that ensued.

When Gerry Wilkes, with the support of the Administration at Sydney, set up a rival course to the one Goldberg thought he had sole authority over, the move to split the department was defended in the name of pluralism, a corrective to the proselytising rigidities of Goldbergism. Once Goldberg had returned to Melbourne, less than four years after his arrival at Sydney, this pluralism was abandoned and a new/old monolithic course set in place. All traces of Goldberg’s values were expunged. Thus Andrew Riemer could finally settle down to enjoy his rightful inheritance, complete with a room in the old sandstone building that is the impressive quadrangle of Sydney University. Academic English at Sydney, to adopt Terry Eagleton’s favourite description of Oxford, would revert to a state of ‘pre-Leavisian’ innocence. But only as long as the world allowed, and the inhabitants of Sydney English could go on forgetting…

We, the class of 1964, were the meat in the sandwich. None of us attained First Class Honours, but a year or two later the first ranks of the Goldberg-educated were showered with them.

That could be interpreted as my being resentful, but the fact is Goldberg was a brilliant, if at times ruthless, tutor. My love of seventeenth century English poetry owes much to him. Then too there are memories of tutorial groups so stimulating that they would go hours over time! All this apart from my being the one male in a class of fourteen, with happy memories of my “harem” and I lying under trees in Centennial Park reading seventeenth century poetry to one another. (I have heard about Joy Phillips since, so if you read this, Joy, know that I remember, and also that you later taught my cousin, now a teacher.)

Michael Wilding, a prominent writer of short stories and former Reader in English at Sydney, tells a fascinating tale in Southerly (March 1999):

“So what do you want to teach?” Sam asked me.
I had no idea. I had just taken finals. It was all literature, all accessible, at least up to 1870 when the Oxford syllabus had ended.
“I don’t mind,” I said. I tried to be more specific. “Anything except Milton,” I said.
Milton had been a compulsory author in my first year, and compulsion rarely endears.
“That’s it then,” he said. “Milton it is. I don’t want some Miltonist teaching Milton.”
Perhaps I had expected to gain merit from my proposed exclusion. Milton was a particular bugbear of the Leavisites. Perhaps I had expected a complicit smirk at my correct taste, my gesture of avoidance. I had certainly not expected this new compulsion. Compulsion it was. I demurred. But I got nowhere…

Apart from Milton I chose, or agreed to the suggestion of, the novel course. That was why I had come to Sydney, after all, the path of the novelist. It would be sensible to learn something of the novelist’s art. And whereas the Oxford syllabus had ended in 1870, this course included the moderns: Conrad, James, Lawrence, Faulkner: what passed for the modern at that time, books too modern for Oxford, even if written some fifty years earlier. I was to teach it together with a lecturer Sam had inherited when he had taken over the department. Most of the lecturers he had inherited. He was trying to stock the place with new talent, Leavisites he had taught or taught with in Melbourne, or recent graduates with a seal of approval from Cambridge or, at a pinch, Oxford. But Bill Maidment, with whom I was to teach, was one of the old guard, the unreconstructed.
“I want you to keep an eye on Bill,” Sam said. “I’m not sure about him.”
I was twenty-one. I had never taught before. I felt uneasy about this instruction…

Bill Maidment will be #5 in my English teachers.


S L Goldberg’s last book (PDF)

Goldberg on King Lear (PDF)

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Posted by on October 31, 2007 in Australian, English studies, literary theory, my English teachers, reminiscences, Teachers Who Change Lives


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My English teachers 3

As best I recall I first encountered Dr Derick Marsh in 1962 when he was tutor to the Distinction Course group I was then in, which included future High Court Justice John Dyson Heydon who went on to pursue History rather than English, I believe. Back in those days tutors tended to smoke pipes, and Dr Marsh had mastered the art of volcanic eruptions of smoke whenever things were getting dull. He would also sometimes start on a quite risible interpretation of a text just to see whether we dutifully agreed with him, a technique I have since used with cleverer senior classes.

He came to us from South Africa where he had been, it appears, a supporter of Helen Suzman and an opponent of apartheid. He was jailed for his efforts; while in jail he was apparently allowed access to pen, paper, and an unmarked complete works of Shakespeare, the result being The recurring miracle; a study of Cymbeline and the last plays in which he thanks the South African government for affording him the time he had been vainly seeking to write the book.

I recall one tutorial where he alluded to South Africa. We were reading W B Yeats:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

“That’s the problem with the South African regime,” he said. “It is not that they are totally evil. It is that they are so sure they are right.”

His lectures later that year on Shakespearian tragedy were simple in structure. He would come in with no or very few notes, just the play in hand, and scene by scene would begin an explication and discussion. We never did quite finish all the tragedies, but the plays were opened up for me in a way that lives with me still.

I notice Latrobe University now has an annual prize in Derick Marsh’s honour for the best undergraduate essay on a Shakespearian subject.


My English teachers 2

I started at the University of Sydney in 1960. Think about that: such a long time ago. I was sixteen years old. If in 1960 someone had said to me “I started at the University of Sydney in 1913” I would have thought “You poor old bugger…” Perhaps some of you are thinking just that.

So what were my teachers like at University? First point, I guess, is that not all of them could teach, though some could, and a few were positively inspiring. There were some who really could not teach but made up for it in scholarship or eccentricity, like the late Dr Thelma Herring whose lectures on Shakespearian comedy in 1961 were in many ways quite dreadful, yet had some interest. That the plays were comedies or even that they were plays escaped her attention, but her familiarity with the minutiae of sources and dates was beyond question. Her speaking style was a distraction as she followed a kind of tune with rising intonation that had an amazingly soporific effect. She was determined too. No matter what noise — a low-flying jet plane for example — she would carry on regardless, her mouth opening and closing unintelligibly, except perhaps to lip-readers, but none of us, so far as I am aware, could read lips. She would also commence her lecture whether or not anyone was in the room. Even so, she was by all accounts a fine person, and she was treated rather badly when the Leavisite revolution happened from 1963.

Shakespearian tragedy was the province of one of the most inspiring teachers I had at University: Professor (then just Dr) Derick Marsh. I will tell you about him next time.

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Posted by on October 20, 2007 in my English teachers, reminiscences


My English teachers 1

Fifty years ago my English teacher was a Mr Harrison. He could claim just enough eccentricity, often a quality in an inspiring teacher, as he was famous for weaving and making his own suits. What he was especially good at was reading aloud. I still remember his reading of The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico as particularly magic. In my own teaching career there have been times, I like to think, when inspired by Mr Harrison’s memory I too have held a class captive by reading something or other. This has been especially valuable with classes who are not all that good at reading. I can remember doing things like serialising novels: Robbery Under Arms and Kidnapped come to mind, not to mention a Macbeth where I took all the parts for a scene or two, and it was only when in a Wollongong HSC class I began to read parts of Patrick White’s The Tree of Man aloud that I saw for myself how good it in fact is! I would urge all English teachers to develop this old-fashioned skill.

In senior years my teacher was Mr Smith, or “Rockjaw”. Younger than Mr Harrison, and of the belief that Rugby Union is “poetry in motion”, he did manage to stimulate much interest in the texts we had to study even if his dramatic skills were not as good as Mr Harrison’s. He did give us a good grounding, for those times, in critical reading; he rubbished me at one time for suggesting that film might be worth studying! Called me “Wordy Whitfield” too on occasion. I wonder why?