‘The Confident Years: Australia in the 1920s’ by Robert Murray

2020, 245 p.

One of the things that I do when I’m not reading, practising my Spanish or listening to podcasts about Rome, is work at my local Heidelberg Historical Society. Our newsletter, which is published every two months, has a feature called ‘A Hundred Years Ago’ which draws together items of local interest from the ‘Heidelberg News’ and, to a lesser extent, the major Melbourne newspapers through Trove. I’ve been writing this feature since 2015 so I’ve gone through the war, through the ‘Spanish’ flu, the commemoration of fallen soldiers and now I’m up to the 1920s. I’d like to know more. A local paper, by its nature, is full of quotidian events with a heavy emphasis on the civic and the worthy. Leaving aside the Bowling Club results and church socials, I’m finding myself interested in the emotional tenor of the times. With a title like ‘The Confident Years’, I was hoping that Robert Murray might unpack the mindset of the 1920s, but I found myself disappointed.

The book, reissued by Australian Scholarly Publishing in 2020 (no doubt with this centenary in mind), was originally published in 1978. This new edition is, as the author admits in his preface

varies little from the original, published in 1978, but has been slightly abridged or amended

p. vii

There are the occasional mentions of Gough Whitlam or Donald Trump as points of comparison, but I suspect that much of the text and certainly the bibliography is unchanged, with not a single book or article published after 1978.

It started well. In the opening chapter, Murray writes:

The 1920s, the decade that followed the war, have gone down in legend as gay and glittering. Relative to the years that preceded and followed them, this was certainly so. From the perspective of the 1970s, Australia’s 1920s were straitlaced, drab, and crushed in a narrowness of vision and stridency of statement. Yet for all the smothering smugness, it was also a time when the spaciousness and order of the nineteenth century merged almost felicitously into the freedom and affluence of the twentieth.

They were above all confident years, when reasonable people could believe- with from the late-century perspective, a quaint dogmatism of certainty- in nation and leaders, in socialism or free enterprise capitalism, religion or atheism. A world war had been won; during it the socialist revolution had won Russia, but had later been overthrown by counter-revolution elsewhere in Europe. This was just enough experience of what the young century had to offer to drive the imagination. The long years had yet to come when the world would live for more than two decades with the shadow or reality of depression and more world war, when not only capitalism and socialism but the very millenia-tried bastion of the Christian belief itself would eventually crumble almost discredited before new generations to whom disillusion seemed merely the way of things.

p.5

This is what I was looking for in this book, but I found that most of the book involved politics with a capital P and the machinations of political operatives on all sides. After an introductory chapter ‘Fit for Heroes’, there follow four chapters dealing with the Nationalist, Labor and Country parties (Ch. 2 The Political World of Billy Hughes; Ch.3 Post-War Labor; Ch. 4 The Big Fella and Chapter 6 Bruce-Page Australia). Chapter 5 inserts an analysis of the Big Boys of the press (Ch. 5 Packer, Murdoch, Fairfax and Co – how depressing that they are still household names a hundred years later) and Ch. 8 After the Bulletin looks at literature and theatre both on stage and screen. Chapter 9 Workers and Bosses looks at the strike activity particularly in the last years of the decade, and Chapter 10 Countdown to Catastrophe ushers in the Depression of the 1930s.

In these chapters, Murray is careful to pay attention to State politics as well as Federal politics, and he introduces male politicians of all stripes with potted biographies. There is a lot of politics squashed in here, as events and crises unfold and pass by.

My favourite chapter was Chapter 7 The Golden Years, which came closest to what I was looking for in the book. There are more women in this chapter although it, too, reads a little like an almanac even to the point of finishing with ‘A Miscellany of Australia’s Twenties’ containing observations that didn’t fit anywhere else. In his preface, Murray mentioned that he interviewed people who were alive during the 1920s, and this chapter- although I enjoyed it most of the whole book- had a bit of the ‘oral-histories’ about it.

This is the only book that I have found that focusses on the 1920s in Australia beyond those ‘So You Were Born in 1925’ type books in newsagents. In terms of capturing a mindset, I gained much more from Deirdre O’Connor’s Harlem Nights, and perhaps I am going to have to look at individual chapters in books about other themes that are less tied to a chronological period (e.g. Janet McCalman’s Journeyings; or Kirsten Otto’s Capital, both of which I have read previously) or fiction -especially newspaper fiction- of the time. I found myself wondering about my own time, a hundred years later, and whether a book about our 21st century ‘Twenties’ that focussed on Australian politics, technology and culture would capture what it is to live now. It would have to include those things of course, but they would not be sufficient. Perhaps I need to send Hugh Mackay back in a time machine to 1920 to measure the emotional climate for me.

Sourced from: State Library of Victoria as an e-book.

2 responses to “‘The Confident Years: Australia in the 1920s’ by Robert Murray

  1. The one book that comes to mind is Judah Waten’s Alien Son, the latter part of which is (I’m sure you know) set in post WWI Carlton. I don’t know his subsequent novels. Then there’s Power Without Glory – does that make it to the 1920s. My great aunt bought a farm house in Surrey Hills about then, Hawthorn brick (which some subsequent vandal painted) and slate roof, stables and orchard that I remember from the 1950s. And that’s about as close to Heidelberg as I can get. Maybe the Boyds/Lindsays could help.

    • Thanks- I was hoping that someone would suggest something. Actually, I know nothing about ‘Alien Son’, so I will check that out. I hadn’t thought about Power Without Glory- Wren was influential in the 1920s (and in fact, Murray does mention him). It doesn’t have to be Heidelberg-centric. I’m just curious about the mindset of 1920s Australians in general.

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