Fucked By God’s Steel Prick: In Conversation With Wendy Bacon

When she first arrived on campus she was lost. On the day of our interview, a frantic phone call with Wendy Bacon dictated our first impressions of one another. We had arranged to meet around the Main Library lawn. A naive decision of mine, believing that she would recognise the landmark library opened by Robert Menzies in 1966 — four years before her Tharunka editorship. “You’ll find me easily”, she chuckled through the phone, “I’m probably the oldest person here”.

I spotted Bacon at the Pavilion, wearing a blue scarf underneath icy grey hair. She was much taller than I predicted. Old photographs of her showed a student whose gaze bled an intractable determination. Seeing her now — I don’t know if time softens a person, but she didn’t bear the outward hardiness that I’d envisioned from reading her work.

 

Wendy Bacon Leaving Court (1972)

 

Meeting Wendy

On our walk to the interview room, Bacon seemed to have a deep fascination with the university’s architecture. Softspoken, she explained to me where the different faculties used to be. A small lament in her voice when speaking about the Blockhouse where the old Tharunka editors worked.

“Has it always been this empty?” Bacon asked, referring to the lack of student posters and visceral signs of campus life. “When I was studying, things were plastered all over the buildings and walls. Now, it seems like everything has become so clean and barren”. As she said this, I recalled an edition of Tharunka that she edited in 1970. An ineradicable sprawl of illustrations of wilderness, the Amazon, a tyrannosaurus rex — underneath bold text that says ‘HAPPENINGS ON CAMPUS’. If the UNSW campus of 1970 was an untameable land of ‘how to rook the government on tax’ and guides to ‘bushwalk’ to the Annual General Meeting, then the campus we’re on now is nothing but a barren wasteland.

Once we sat down, Bacon pulled out from her bag a collection of Tharunka and Thor. She’d preserved them in great form and I remembered being surprised by this. Given that her body of work ranged from The Guardian, Crikey, to a Walkley award in 1984, Tharunka could’ve only been a small chapter in her career. It was only after talking to Bacon that I realised it was anything but. “I came to the university in 1968 and did an Honours year in Sociology”, Bacon said, “There was just lots going on in Sydney at the time and I got involved politically.

Though, not heavily in student politics. In 1969, in a rather bizarre situation, the students had a meeting and voted to abolish the Student Representative Council because our view was that it wasn’t being representative of what the students were on about. That was successful. At the time people said, well, you can’t abolish the Student Representative Council because then you won’t have a student newspaper. And we said, well, we’d just produce a newspaper anyways.

That became the first Tharunka, if you’d like, that I was involved with. It wasn’t the official one, it was called Thor or Thorout. We just did that and distributed it all around the campus. Sort of to show you didn’t need to depend upon anyone to produce a newspaper.” “We liked it so much that we then stood for election”.

Tharunka: Tell me more about Thor

“We published a lot of pages in 1970, and a lot of copies. We were rather self-indulgent in a way, but also we sent up quite a lot of advertisements from the government because of our protest against the Vietnam War. There were various ways that we didn’t help get income for Tharunka. By 2/3 of the way through the year, we were told we had to cut right back. We still continued on and we cut back, but at the same time, it wasn’t really just a student thing anymore.

We had the author Frank Moorhouse, and Sandra Levy who went to work at the ABC.” “A whole big group of us were really involved in publishing and loved it by then. So, we decided to bring out an underground newspaper which we could then distribute. When I say underground, what we haven’t talked about is the revolution in publishing that was happening then. Earlier you would’ve had to get hot metal printing presses, then we had offset publishing.

Around Sydney there were various small off-set printers. We would go to them and give them cash, and they’d print the newspaper. Very often we ended up having to collate it ourselves though. We only had to raise around $300-400 an issue to get it published so it was not expensive. We’d sell it and we could publish another one. We did that until early 1973.” “While we were doing Thor, we were still involved in Tharunka. We did special supplements, one on Family Violence, one on sexuality, prisons etc. We kept our hand in Tharunka but were off doing our own thing.”

 

A Wendy Bacon supporter outside court (1972)

 

On Censorship

Bacon, Val Hodgson and Allan Rees formed an editorship during a changing period for Australian censorship laws. It was in the same year that Don Chipp became Minister for Customs. A follower of Liberalism, Chipp regarded censorship as a “monstrous thing”, “an evil concept”.

He wanted to stir away the governmental hold over censorship and “leave it to the individual choice”. Bacon concurred that the slow breath of change had made it possible for publications to challenge the constraints brought on by previous governments. Prohibited works were then being slowly released, The Little Red School-book by Soren Hansen and Jesper Jensen being amongst them. The controversial book encouraged schoolchildren to question societal norms, with over two-thirds of it containing explicit instructions on sex and drugs.

However, it remained prohibited within schools and universities as there were still concerns over the book’s potential to erode the education system. Risking jail, Bacon went on to distribute a tabloid version of the book around university campuses. Succinct in her statement to the press, in that “school kids should have rights”.

Tharunka: Would you say that back then, student journalism had more freedom than the mainstream press?

“Oh absolutely. I’ll give you a good example of that. While we were editing Tharunka, a very big moratorium or protest against Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War happened. During that protest there was police violence, and if we observed it, we would report it.” “Another example of that was one of the first big Land Rights demonstrations in Australia that took place in that year too. One person’s arm was broken by the police. And so, we reported it. The Sydney Morning Herald and the Daily Telegraph would not have published anything like that.”.

“Whereas the earlier radicals tended to oppose pornography or dismiss it as unworthy to be taken seriously as a form of knowledge, the anarchists treated it as an instrument for liberation. This idea was considered revolutionary. So, the Tharunka editorial decided to publish the bawdy ‘Ballad of Eskimo Nell’.”

“The Ballad of Eskimo Nell. Yes”, Wendy said, beaming, “Which seems crazy now! It was a very sexist and pretty ghastly poem. What happened was that I was in the Tharunka office down in the Blockhouse. There was an academic called Graham Pont, who was a philosophy professor.. He was already a friend of mine, and he came into the Tharunka office one day and said “Why don’t you publish the words of Eskimo Nell?”.”

“Now, Eskimo Nell was one of those things that guys in rugby —the locker rooms —would chant and, you know, it was ‘out-there’ but it was hidden at the same time. Now, it seems probably quite a crazy thing to do but we put it on the back-page with a picture of a bride on top. That was looking at the contrast between puritanism and ideas of femininity. What’s hidden, and the sort of violent culture below.” ‘Eskimo Nell’ ended up receiving more support than backlash.

Bacon recalled that “on one occasion… we had a big meeting in the Roundhouse. I think there were nearly 1000 students, which was a lot then, and the large majority had the same feeling we did. In that we should be trying to break boundaries”. The editorial comment in the edition of ‘Eskimo Nell’ stated ‘There is nothing inherently filthy about sex. The filth in the publication comes only from the values of the reader’.

 

Wendy Bacon in her infamous Nun outfit (1980s)

 

Five Nuns and a Gorilla

Tharunka: You finally faced legal challenges when you published ‘Cunt is a Christian Word’, why did you think it was then that it happened instead of when you published ‘The Ballad of Eskimo Nell?

“Back then we didn’t think this through clearly. But the whole thing about that poem was to highlight the hypocrisy of a certain sort of Christian religion and preaching, and also to talk about the repression of sexuality, especially women’s and how damaging that is. And I’m not saying that repression was not in the poem itself. We were just determined that we would break through the censorship laws. We didn’t see other editors at other universities doing similar things.

The fact is that it caused a reaction.” “At the time, what we believed was that sermons were preached at Catholic churches that said that we [Tharunka] had to be stopped. Legal challenges hadn’t happened before that, because I think the authorities were very weary due to the public support for the newspaper. There were schoolkids who would come to pick up Tharunka to then go to the city to sell them. So, it was really a popular thing, even when there were people who were disapproving.” “So then, Graeme Dunstan and Val Hodgson were both issued with summonses, Allan Rees and myself were not. I think that’s because we had a three-way editorship and I had a scholarship to do a PhD at the time.

We were charged and had to go to court.” “A lot of things flowed from going to court. I mean going to court, perhaps more than any other thing, changed my life. I just saw things that as a young, middle-class woman, I have not been exposed to. That was significant.” “We weren’t the only people doing that. But when we went to court, we basically would stand up to court and not recognise its authority over us. So, we dressed up in these nun costumes that we sewed and wrote slogans down the front. We did this at Liz Fell’s house, she was a tutor at the university.

The five of us went there and another student dressed up as a gorilla. We just wandered through the court and protested. I was arrested on that occasion and that led to me being charged with distributing obscenity. Those original summonses never went to trial. Eventually they all disappeared and the actual censorship trials took place in 1971 and 1972.” And what did the slogans say? “I have been fucked by God’s steel prick.”

The Obscenity Trials

“I have been fucked by God’s steel prick”, Bacon said, albeit reservedly, “A pretty crazy thing to say, and I’m not sure that’s actually a line in the poem, but it was performance art in a way. It was a statement of defiance.” “One interesting anecdote that came out of that was, when we went into the court – we took with us a pamphlet that had the reprint of ‘Cunt is a Christian Word’. We distributed them to everyone in the vestibules of the central court, and it was a Monday morning.

If you knew anything about court back then, they used to pick up loads of people on the weekend, they’d be in the cells and it’d be full of people.” “Subsequently I was arrested, but in order for me to go to trial, they had to find someone who would say they were offended by the poem that I’d given to them. Someone did give evidence that they were offended at the time. However, many years later when I was working at UTS, maybe in the late 1990s, a person came to visit me and said that he’d spent his whole life feeling really bad about giving that evidence, and he’d left the country and came back.

Of course, I’d long forgotten, let alone held a grudge against him. He told me what actually happened was that the police came to visit his mother in Erskineville and said that unless he gave evidence, he would not be able to get a passport and leave the country. So, he reluctantly gave that false evidence.” “Experiences like that are where you learn things. By colliding with the system, you also learn a lot of things about the system. I had no idea back then about how the police would treat people until I got arrested myself ”.

Tharunka: Did your time in prison shape your writing?

“It was a shock for me to end up in prison. I probably had some stupid belief that I might be immune. I had a fairly middle-class upbringing so I didn’t see that. From the moment I went in there, it was quite confronting. People were strip-searched, distressed, screaming. The health services were completely inadequate. There were women in there for no other reason than because they were homeless.

There were vagrancy laws. And sex work was still illegal back then. By talking to people, I just learnt a lot more. Not just about privilege, but about how much was hidden. That fuelled a desire in me to be a journalist and activist. It broadened and gave me more impetus than anything. A week in prison is nothing though. But it was a big thing for me at that time. It was a very good example of making your enemy worse by punishing them. Later on, I was part of a group that formed ‘Women Behind Bars’ and we had many campaigns.”

 

Wendy Bacon speaking at a Green Ban Protest (1976)

 

The Obscenity Trials Continued

Bacon had her first trial in February 1971. Two charges were issued against her. The first, for displaying obscenity and the other, for distributing it. “The exhibiting as the nun’s costume, the distributing was the pamphlet”, she said. Instead of a barrister, Bacon represented herself.

In Uni-Sex, she wrote: ‘I adopted an attitude of minimal participation in the trial — giving no evidence, calling no witnesses, cross-examining none’. The jury found her guilty on the first charge and not on the second. Spending eight days in Silverwater prison, she was fined $100 and put on good behaviour bond for two years. “It was a struggle for the authorities to punish us”, said Bacon.

“The actual obscenity act said that if you published something that was depraved and corrupted, then you were guilty of obscenity. The problem was that the prosecution didn’t have to present any evidence of that. They could just say that it was apparent.” “We took that head on, and asked where their evidence was. They were trying to impose their own view.

We challenged the way they thought. They wouldn’t even let the jury in my trial see a section of the Act, they wanted to tell them how they should think about it. We were challenging all the way along the line. I defended myself, but there was a barrister called Jimmy Staples, who was a very courageous barrister and he challenged the judge a lot and actually told the jury that if they wanted to see the act, they could just go down to a certain place in Sydney and buy it for 50 cents.

That caused an uproar.” Difficulties in interpreting the Obscene Publications Act became much more apparent with Bacon’s second trial in 1972. She was charged together with John Cox for the possession and sale of Thorunka. Bacon was once again unrepresented. But this time, she called in witnesses who were readers of the publication. During the examination, the judge told Bacon that she was prejudicing her case by demonstrating evidence of the extent to which the publication was read:

Wendy Bacon: I am not afraid of that.

His Honour: And I am telling you this in your interests.

Wendy Bacon: I consider it to be in my own interests. I am not afraid to tell the jury that this paper has been shown to any number of people.

His Honour: If I were you. I would not adopt this rather daring attitude as I told you the other day.

Wendy Bacon: I am not daring. I am trying to be honest.

Amidst the censorship trials, Tharunka’s readership was at its height. After eight days, Bacon and Cox were found guilty. They were fined $200 each and placed on five-year bonds. The Full Court of Criminal Appeal, however, overturned those convictions. “They said the judge had explained the law incorrectly”, Bacon said, “We got that charge as well. At that point, the government dropped maybe about 30 different cases that could’ve gone to trial.”

They realised the public had moved on and nobody was terribly upset about what we were publishing. That was a breakthrough – we weren’t the only people out there doing it – but we really took on the challenge. Several years after I edited Tharunka though, they introduced this thing called the Indecent Publications Act. That was really the beginning of the era where certain material would be put below counters and in plastic.

It became more of an administrative form of censorship. It wasn’t maybe until another 20 years for another student newspaper to publish a guide to shoplifting. Again, that was to shock and be satirical, and they ended up getting charged. There were a lot of years when nothing happened in that space, but even though there will always be censorship, it is not nearly as restrictive as it was in the late 60s.” In an ironic twist at the time, Frank Moorhouse, a large figure of the Sydney Push, received a literary grant from the New South Wales Government’s Cultural Grants Committee which eventually helped him to write the controversial book The Americans, Baby.

 

Tharunka Volume 16 No. 11 (1970)

 

Freedom and Literary Merit

The early argument for literary merit was one thing that made possible for student newspapers to achieve more freedom than the mainstream press of the time. In 1953, amendments were made to the Police Offences Act to allow literary merit as a defence in obscenity cases. The same argument was later on used for the trial of the magazine Oz in 1964. It succeeded as a rebuttal against allegations of depravity regarding Oz’s publication of Martin Sharp’s artwork, and came was an opportunity for Tharunka to “publish what it wanted to publish”.

Regardless of this support, Sydney liberationists like Bacon wanted to push even further. While radicals advocating for literary merit placed emphasis on knowledge, the liberationists believed that an emphasis on knowledge, much like an emphasis on culture, can be used to oppress freedom. In her chapter ‘From P.L.C. to Thor’ in the book Uni-Sex, Bacon writes: ‘When a politician says don’t so something, that thing becomes all the more attractive…we were only too glad to use the opportunity to make it clear that the issue, when it comes to censorship, is freedom, not literary merit’.

During the trials, Bacon refused to argue for the pamphlet’s literary merit. In two personal statements released in Thor in 1971, she stated her belief that literary merit remains a caveat subjected to be taken advantage of by the censors. She also believed that lawyers embodied the authoritarian court system. And in representing herself, she rejected the ‘servility’ of the defendants.

Tharunka published another pamphlet ‘Obscenity and the Law’ which illustrated Bacon’s defence in portraying the subjectivity in the legal concept of ‘obscenity’. Using Socrates’ dialogue Euthyphro, Bacon contended that obscenity exists only in the eye of the beholder. She questioned: ‘is a publication obscene because the average man objects to it, or does the average man object to it because it is obscene?’.

Journalism as Activism

When I asked her whether journalism is a form of activism, Bacon was adamant that “it often has to be”. “If you don’t have the conditions in which stories can get out to the public, then you have to have the view that it should be out there”, she said. “In a sense there is a point where journalism and activism come together. Some journalists would see themselves in a very neutral space. That view is less so now.

Back then, if you were in the mainstream press, you somehow didn’t have views. If we look at the Sydney Morning Herald now, which is very dependent on real estate advertising, a lot of what is published is a promotion of real estate advertising. That is a form of activism for real estate. If you really care about violence against women, yes, the most important thing about being a journalist is being accurate, but sometimes telling the truth is a form of activism.” “These days, quite a lot of what I do is local journalism because it’s voluntary.

There is no space for that in the media at the moment, for minor communities to tell their stories, to do those stories. For example, out in Western Sydney, there is a major waste facility that is causing a lot of problems for residents that barely gets a look in. A lot of issues in Western Sydney do not get covered. Trying to fill that space in just a tiny way is a form of activism, but that doesn’t mean it’s not journalism.” “I’m guided by the code of ethics, but the most important thing is telling the truth.”

Tharunka: You spoke of telling the truth. In journalism, does the concept of ‘objectivity’ exist?

“Part of the idea of being a Sydney Libertarian was this idea of critical inquiry. It was very much the idea that you had to get at empirical truths and publish the facts, and to cut through ideology. It was a big influence on me from 1967-1969, so you see that coming through in Tharunka. I don’t think I believed in the notion of objectivity, because a lot of what we studied in sociology was to look at how values are learned in childhood and acted out. What I probably would have said is that most people who talk about objectivity are in fact being very subjective.”

 

Wendy and others dressed as Nun’s outside court (1970)

 

The Aggressive Woman

The ‘aggressive woman’. Bacon inherited this title in the aftermath of her time in court. At the time, it was a pleasure for the popular press to push this perception. A time where dignified anger seemed only reserved for revolutionaries who were men. As she sat across from me, I was surprised by the gentleness in her mannerism.

I was expecting something stern. But she was patient, kind, perhaps even calculating (given the slickness of her answers) but never hostile. “When people meet me, they’d often say ‘Oh, you’re not like what we thought you were going to be’ and I don’t know what they thought I was going to be”, she chuckled. I was embarrassed for making the same mistake. She told me that to enter the publications scene and the Sydney Push, one needed a razor-like sharpness.

While she admitted that she faced a lack of confidence like many young women, she “didn’t find it difficult to get up and speak”. “There was a time when the women’s movement [the 1970’s version of feminism] was really getting going in Sydney. Like a lot of women, it was those years and the coming years when I became very involved in the women’s movement.

I ended up working at the Liverpool Women’s Health Centre when it first opened, and I was involved in a group called Women Behind Bars. But I wouldn’t say, to be honest, that I was very aware when we took on the editorship of Tharunka, that it possibly was more of a challenge because we were women. I don’t think I thought that through. But looking back at it, there were many stereotypes of women and I was often portrayed as the aggressive woman.

There were all these stereotypes that made me think all about those issues. But I can’t say I understood it that well at the time.” I thought that there were cartoons made about you that I feel were very antagonistic, that wouldn’t have been made about other editors at that time. “I think that’s true. And in retrospect, I can look back and see that. A lot had happened after the two big censorship trials I was involved with. For ages, I couldn’t get a visa to the United States, and I was also banned from live radio and television. I was pretty sure there was a sexist element in that. I was seen as a threat especially because I was a woman. I think strong women are often seen as a threat.

At the time, many Women Liberationists and members of the LGBT activism group CAMP Inc. were against what Bacon was publishing. This was escalated by the misogyny and homophobia present within the Sydney Push. Though they considered the contents of Thor as sexist pornography, many admired Bacon’s militance.

Regardless, CAMP still lent its support towards Bacon in 1972, by devoting Camp Ink editions on covering the court cases as well as renting out their address to raise money for legal expenses. When asked about this relationship with the Women’s Liberation Movement, Bacon replied: “I would say that some of the material we published was very sexist. I wouldn’t publish those things now. I probably reached that view around 1975 when I started to think a lot more about gender.”

“On the other hand, even in the late 70s when I was involved in a group called ‘Women Behind Bars’, we were still much less pro-censorship than quite a lot of feminists were. There was a strain in feminism that can become very socially conservative. I see it now in approaches to issues like transgender [rights]. What we argued then, which is something I wouldn’t argue now, is that it doesn’t matter what you publish, it won’t affect anyone. Obviously if you expose children to violent pornography, it could have a traumatising effect. I still do think though, that it’s very important to look out for internal and external forms of censorship.

Through a lot of our laws that have come out from moves on anti-terrorism does limit journalists in their communications, and also the way the defamation laws work in Australia.” “I haven’t become pro-censorship, but I probably have changed in relation to what I would publish or would want others to publish. I don’t regret it.

It was very much in its context, and we lived in a very restrictive atmosphere in Australia, and it needed to be challenged. There was material on the pill, on menstruation, a whole thing called ‘Get Fucked’ which was basic sex education. The conditions in high schools – there were students getting expelled for wearing moratorium badges and the material we did on land rights — I’m very much glad we did that. There was a lot of good that we published.”

Maybe all journalism begins with a simple desire for freedom. For Bacon, this desire has carried over to the rest of her career. “Bringing things out to light, not accepting censorship, trying to tell the truth, trying to report the truth. Publishing itself. In a way that it can be frustrating and exciting. I think the desire to do journalism really began for me with Tharunka.”, she said, “It hasn’t left”.

For many, she is a symbol of anarchic resilience, someone who has shown the possibilities of what student journalism could achieve. But what exactly did she represent to me? It was intimidating to interview Bacon due to this reason. As someone who was applying to become an editor for Tharunka at the time, I was inspired by our similarities, while also being well aware of how different we actually were.

Here I was, a queer person of-colour, immigrant, living under a crippling inflation rate and certainly did not come from a background where someone could afford to bail me out if I was ever arrested. How could someone like me edit Tharunka and come to achieve something like what she’s achieved? There are much bigger challenges today in being the type of journalist Bacon came to be. With cost-of-living pressures, and a university model that requires a large amount of extracurricular work — journalistic talents are lost against the need to find an internship and pay rent.

It doesn’t matter if you’re well-capable. How then, can the rebellious spirit of the old Tharunka survive? Bacon believes that what she’s achieved is only possible within an already-changing cultural zeitgeist. And that it’s only through solidarity and collective action that we’re able to initiate change. In the lift, as we were descending, she reminded me that it’s not so much about my own doubts but how much I can contribute alongside others. That perhaps the only thing that I needed to do right now was to “keep writing and not be afraid”.

 

Wendy Bacon and Tharunka 70 Editor, Anh Noel

 

Photographic Material Courtesy of UNSW Archives, Tharunka, NSW State Library and Wendy Bacon


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