Thursday, June 11, 2009


I have been reading Sandra Hall’s 2008 biography of Ezra Norton, a stocky little tome which is at least as much about the times in which Norton was active (50? years within the 20th century; he was born just before the turn of it) as it is about the man himself who remains nonetheless something of an enigma. A lot of things bother me about this book, not many of which have much to do with the book itself, though I do have my complaints, which I have to admit are probably more related to my own historical interests than they are to Hall’s account of Norton’s life.
Ezra Norton was a newspaper publisher and editor, who ran successful tabloid newspapers in Sydney. One of Hall’s initial issues, and you don’t need to be a historian to sympathise with her here, is that she didn’t actually have much to go on in terms of personal papers. Ezra Norton – possibly because his father John was famously such a notorious famous violent alcoholic and by all accounts a complete shit – was a relatively private man who took pains to cover up his private life. Yet Ezra was a public figure, and there is entirely no doubt that he enjoyed an ongoing ‘public life’ insofar as he was responsible for literature that made its way into millions of people’s lives on a daily basis.

One thing that bothers me about this book is that I didn’t know it had been published until I saw a copy on a remainder table at my local shopping centre. It may have been under-publicised though I am notorious (in my own mind) for being unable to concentrate on the weekend papers as they annoy me so much with their glib prescriptiveness so it is perfectly possible that I passed over a review.

Another thing that bothers me is that, while it was probably a good idea of Hall’s to spend pages contextualising Norton’s life with events of the time, the general lack of knowledge of Australian history that this implies/ that makes this necessary is highly irritating. Still, no point in griping about that I suppose, and in any case after a fashion I arguably benefit from that personally (because history teaching is a string on my bow).

What bothers me the most however – and this seems to be more and more of a gripe of mine and may be one of the keys to the grumpy old man phenomenon – is the lack of mention of two things I know something about, and which are entirely ignored in Hall’s text. A sensible person with perspective would say, well, that’s because my in-depth knowledge of these special things are entirely distorting my perspective if not my perception of their importance to the narrative. There’s probably a little McDonalds-style inner know-it-all inside me jumping up and down and saying ‘I know! I know! Me! Me!’ as well, the way kids in primary school with answers would emphatically shoot their hands in the air like a nazi salute. But then you also think that perhaps these are important things that shouldn’t be missing from the Hall book. If you’re reading this, Sandra, you’ve got a very good handle on Ezra Norton but there are at least two facts-events missing:

(1) Grant Hervey spent two or three (can’t remember) years in jail for trying to blackmail John Norton’s wife, i.e. Ezra Norton’s mother. Hervey went into prison a maverick and a criminal and came out unhinged and spent another ten years of his life being a walking disaster to everyone. Hervey was a bad poet and a crappy prose writer and even if the blackmail trial/ imprisonment is something that happened to Hervey, not the Nortons, still (a) Hervey knew Mrs. Norton and since Hall goes into quite a bit of detail about another public/controversial insinuation of infidelity, here’s another aspect to the Nortons’ tempestuous marriage that deserves a little coverage (b) the whole fiasco was heavily publicised so… that’s important, to (or in) my mind. (2) Boofhead. R B Clark invented Boofhead and it ran in an Ezra Norton newspaper. The story about Boofhead often published, never proven is that Clark, who worked in the railways, went to his editor (Norton?) at some stage and said he thought he should take drawing lessons and the editor wouldn’t hear of it. Boofhead is, well, less of an important figure these days though he did have a life of his own after Clark’s death in the early 1970s (and the termination of the comic strip) through the work of Martin Sharp, etc. So I think that’s a valid thing to bring up, in terms of Norton’s contribution to the culture. Hall has her own narrative to pursue which has to be respected; she’s more interested in the troubles Norton experienced in actually gaining government permission to publish a new newspaper during the Second World War and it’s true, that’s interesting. But I’ve read through the first issues of that paper and it was definitely a mass appeal tabloid, just like the publication the Nortons were famous for, Truth. Its comics were a part of that important element.

It would be nice to wrap this up with some kind of stylistic so there but ultimately I support Sandra Hall’s right to publish a book on any aspect of Ezra Norton she pleases. I suppose I have made a slightly patronising assumption that she probably didn’t know about the Hervey thing and found the Boofhead bit irrelevant. The biography is very readable anyway. My grandfather was a journalist in Melbourne in the 30s and Sydney in the 40s and 50s and then Melbourne again till his retirement. I wish I’d discussed it more with him though it also has to be said he did not have an objective perspective on it and why would he.

A week later PS: The only time Ezra Norton was ever happy - the one time - was when he spent a train trip singing show songs with his wife. Later, he lost his temper again.


Anonymous said...

Although you may well be right, I was wondering if you have any specific basis for saying Grant Hervey came out of jail unhinged?

David Nichols said...

Almost everything he did subsequently seems to back this up but particularly his activities in Mildura.