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Heading for a storm: Cyclone Tracy, books, art and other matters

Our jet sped down the runway at Paya Lebar Airport and lifted into Singapore’s soft night air. As the plane made its way towards the North of Australia, Cyclone Tracy was about to destroy Darwin. It was Christmas Eve 1974.

"The most significant Australian event was discovering our first bark painting, an extraordinary image by Mick Kubarkku"

WARNING: This blog contains the names and images of Aboriginal people now deceased. The blog also contains links to blogs that may contain images of Aboriginal and Islander people now deceased.

Somewhere down below in the darkness that night, now so long ago, Kunwinjku artist, ceremony man and friend, Kalarriya ‘Jimmy’ Namarnyilk (dec), sheltered in the bathroom of the Darwin leprosarium.

Somehow that ‘strong wind’ had an impact on us all. Jimmy and Andrea and I all made it that Christmas Eve, now 40 years ago, but that ‘strong wind’ will always bind us together. For Andrea and I this first journey to Australia was the beginning of a lifetime of collecting Aboriginal art and a deep regard for Australian Aboriginal ideas and knowledge.

Peter Hylands and Garry Djorlom discussing the impact of Cyclone Tracy on Aboriginal people and Gunbalanya. The discussion is available on the Aboriginal art and culture: Westen Arnhem Land DVD pack available from the Creative cowboy films shop on this website

Cyclone Tracy with its winds of 240 kilometres per hour destroyed Darwin that night, killing 71 people and leaving 30,000 people homeless. By the time we touched down in Sydney, Cyclone Tracy had done its work and all hell had broken lose in Australia as the rescue effort began.

Repaired: After the cyclone and 36 years later in 2010 - it takes a very long time

So how did we find ourselves in Sydney on Christmas day 1974?

Now we step back into Europe. The date, September 1974 and Andrea and I had just returned to England from Austria. England was about to enter its winter of discontent.

Andrea Hylands in Carinthia, Austria

At the Longman office in Harlow life went on, international markets for Longman’s book publishing programme were growing. The UK market was slightly depressing but for a bright company that understood the world, Longman was doing well.

Mark Longman had been a friend of Henry Moore. Henry’s studio was not too distant from the Longman office. And so it was that we worked in somewhat unusual circumstances with Henry’s very valuable sculptures surrounding us.

For us these were days of laughter and sunshine in the ever-increasing British gloom. I had, a few months earlier, finished working on Longman’s two hundred and fiftieth anniversary exhibition (National Book League, London and then later at Longman House) and we had looked at some extraordinarily beautiful books with their fanned fore-edge paintings and decorated bindings, many having to be gathered in from around the country. I will come to the reason later.

The exhibition catalogue designed by Brian Lock

The Longman family had been soap-makers in Bristol and as the trade declined there Thomas Longman (1699 – 1755) decided to enter a trade he believed would hold great potential for the future, so to London and to Paternoster Row and to the book trade. Thomas purchased a publishing and book selling business in Paternoster Row in 1724. With it came Longman’s famous colophon ‘the sign of the ship’ which had been in use by the business (under its various earlier ownerships) purchased by Thomas since the time of Charles 1, probably around 1630 or so.

Longman is Britain’s oldest ‘commercial’ publishing house.

In the two hundred and fifty years that preceded the exhibition Longman had steadily published an ever-growing list of titles, many momentous works of publishing including Lothair and Endymion by novelist Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. There are so many titles and so many great figures writing them and the contribution to British culture so great, it is not possible to describe them here.

Longman publishing over the period documents the changes in culture, society and taste in Britain. The publishing output also mirrors technology through the period, Thomas Longman, initially inspired by the possibilities that the combination of the improving print technology of the time and the idea that print based publishing could be shaped into a successful and ongoing business venture. He was of course correct, wars aside, the first real threat to this idea, radio and television becoming friends rather than enemies of the printed word, not coming until the 1990s and the Internet.

In 1974 I reflected on what, fifty years earlier, the two-hundredth anniversary celebrations must have been like. At this gathering were Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Rider Haggard and the historian G M Trevelyan History of England (The Trevelyan / Wolseley family of which friend and artist John Wolseley is part and to whom I have given my later one volume edition of History of England, originally published in 1926).

Trevelyan warned at the time of the anniversary:

‘the danger to literature in the twentieth century is not so much immediate death by starvation as the danger of losing its own soul to the ideals of all-conquering journalism’.

There were many other famous authors present. The bleak and black clouds of the First World War and its stark erasure of British talent remained in recent memory and the coming evil of the Second World War was about to hatch out. While some of the bright and honourable gathering may have had a sense of foreboding, what was to come next was probably beyond, even their imaginations. The Longman building in Paternoster Row (rebuilt in 1863 after a fire) was bombed twice by the Germans, once in December 1940 and subsequently in January 1941, destroying the building. The tragedy was documented by photographer Sir Cecil Beaton.

In many ways the twentieth century was a time of revolution for the publishing industry and particularly for Longman. There were significant changes to education and a great expansion of educational opportunities for young people, not only in Britain, but also in many other places around the world. This opened up international markets, for which Longman was well placed to take full advantage of the opportunities.

Charles Higham (second from the right) and John Chapple (right) with author and teaching English expert C E Eckersley with African advisors Major Harmon and T McKay. Longman 1948

I remain deeply envious of some of Longman’s early international publishers, including Charles Higham, who made such a success of expanding the company’s international businesses. There were of course many great and adventurous trips and many great publishing dinners. It says a great deal for my friend and colleague W P (Bill) Kerr’s efforts in Africa when some years after Bill’s death we spoke to a group of Maasai warriors in the Rift Valley who could tell us that they loved Longman (and were grateful for the education the company’s books had provided them).

Maasai friend Gideon Meyoki in the Rift Valley

There was the greater corporatisation of the publishing industry, Longman becoming a public company in 1947 and subsequently becoming part of the Financial and Provincial Publishing Company (now Pearson PLC) in 1968. There was the paperback revolution, this followed by the acquisition of Penguin from its founder Sir Allen Lane in 1970, the year of Allen’s death. So it was that the sign of the ship and the Penguin, the Pelican and the Puffin came to sit together on our bookshelves. By 1970 the combined annual turnover of the two businesses was 17 million pounds with more than 60 per cent of sales now in markets outside of Britain. These were the foundations of what was to become a very significant global publishing and information business.

The twentieth century was a time of great technological change in the publishing industry, much of it compressed into the last half of the century. Hot metal typesetting and printing to phototypesetting and lithography, the introduction of a great deal more colour and the illustrated book, the paperback and finally the development of the Internet and electronic publishing. By the end of the century channels to market were being revolutionised bringing both great opportunity and great difficulty, the later particularly for trade based publishing of the Penguin type.

Dhaka, Bangladesh: Technology changes everything 

What did change over all this time, when I look back at the history of the distribution of content over the 550 years or so since the death of Johannes Gutenberg, is how that content was paid for and the model of its production and distribution. The evolution of copyright, changes to rights and royalties, early collaborative publishing, specialisation, divergence and convergence, the Internet and so on. What I also think is that we can learn a lot about the future by understanding what happened in the past as in some ways we have travelled full circle. I will try and write about this when time allows.

In the twentieth century things had changed a lot and that included company culture, demonstrated by the research for the exhibition and its associated publishing, which suggested that Charles J Longman, a powerful figure in the 1920s, refused to have a telephone or female shorthand typists in his office.

Sadly Mark Longman did not survive to see his two hundred and fiftieth anniversary exhibition, but he was there, in a portrait by Graham Sutherland painted in 1970.

Peter Hylands' poster for the exhibition

It was so with books in mind and because of Longman that we plunged into a sun filled land. This was a time of change in Australia, Australia’s Indigenous people were not doing well but the land rights movement was gaining momentum. As we discovered first hand, things for Indigenous people in Queensland at that time were best described as grim, it was then unimaginable to us at that time that our friends would soon put a crack in that wall. We should acknowledge that since that time there have been significant changes, and these changes need to continue. This however is a story for another time.

These were the early days of the Boeing 747 flights from Heathrow to Sydney, you were in Australia the minute you boarded the aircraft in London. The bad news is back in those days it was still almost a 40 hour haul, there were many stops on the way. These flights resembled something like a flying bar, passengers never without a beer in their hands. This was also the time when passengers smoked on aircraft and the non smoking section would be full of people standing around, busily smoking away and puffing out large volumes of smoke in-between polishing off yet another can of beer. One feature of the time was, that because people smoked on the flight, the air was refreshed at a much higher rate than it is today on non smoking flights, so you probably felt better at the end of it all when other passengers smoked.

Barry McKenzie, the two other Barrys in fact, were busy instructing Londoners on the finer points of Australian life (thank you Phillip) so we all knew what to expect, well perhaps not. Apart from the discomfort of it all these flights were in many ways a joyous occasions of fun and friendship. I do not get the same feeling today.

River elegy: Ismanto and daughter Sekar perform by a riverbed, Central Java, as we film the new documentary Arahmaiani: Between the mountain and the sea

There was a strange divide, almost as if someone had built a wall, between Australia and the diverse countries of Asia. This was an Asia in which we fitted so comfortably, so the divide was hard to understand. Perhaps some things have changed but the divide between Indonesia and Australia appears as wide as ever, certainly for government that is. Better to move forward with hands held in friendship, there are many problems to be shared by these two countries, climate change and reducing emissions, environmental - species endangerment, land clearing and water and so on. Here Australia and Indonesia share common ground as they are among the worst countries on earth when it comes to loss of biodiversity, particularly through species endangerment and clearing of natural vegetation. In Indonesia’s case there are also major industrial pollution problems which need to be solved and very high levels of greenhouse emissions, some of which are directly due to environmental issues, peat fires and so on. For Australia it is also high per capita greenhouse emissions and a toxic mining legacy, which will prove highly costly to both environment and public coffers.

The arts community is the leader in engagment here.

Indonesia's precious islands (from Komodo Island)

It was a time when the wowserism of Australia’s six o’clock swill was still fresh in memory, that was a time when after the work day had finished, the five o’clock rush to the pub bar, with only one hour of drinking time left before the pub closed, meant complete chaos (and a great deal of wife bashing). The swill of drinking as much as you could in one hour, and then the drunken drive home, it was a men only affair and Andrea was still refused entry into pubs as we travelled across the country several years later.

I can recall driving in Australia’s cities late at night. Alcohol was important, on that first Christmas Day in Australia in 1974, looking around when we stopped at traffic lights, we could see that the drivers of the other cars around us were on automatic pilot, mysteriously managing to stop at the red light and then slump onto their car’s steering wheel, magically reviving as the lights changed, to weave their way home once more.

Much of this time now lost to Australian memory.

We discovered from Cyclone Tracy that the world's weather can be a powerful and destructive force. With increased warming the world's weather will become even more dangerous. Australia’s per capita emissions are startling and increasing again because of greater use of coal to generate electricity directly as a result of recent Australian Federal Government policies. Despite what Australian Governments now pretend, Australia is a major contributor to climate change and is well within the top twenty emitters of greenhouse gases (particularly when its fossil fuel exports are taken into account), with at least 170 other countries on earth emitting less. Australians should also note that there are already sixty carbon pricing mechanisms operating around the world at both national and regional levels. By the end of 2015 this figure may reach one hundred.

Severe drought in Central Victoria, Australia

What is worrying about Australia is that until a year or so ago it was reducing its emission, a great effort from the people of Australia and their use of renewables.

This work now undone, as emissions have risen again, since the repeal of Australia’s carbon pricing mechanism and the resulting increased appetite for coal fired generation of electricity in the country’s eastern states. The unhelpful trend of increased emissions despite significant industrial closures in carbon based energy hungry mineral processing and manufacturing. It is likely that at least some of these closures could have been avoided by applying sounder energy and industry policy, allowing companies to survive a period, now fading fast, in which the value of the Australian dollar was extremely high. This set of disasters for Australia runs parallel to the ‘talking down’ of Australia’s renewable energy sector by its Federal Government driving significant investment (and jobs) in renewables out of the country.

Sunset at Mindil Beach, Darwin - worth saving?

All this is not only bad for younger generations in Australia and elsewhere but is also very very bad for Australian businesses, particularly in the global context, and that includes Australia’s farm and manufacturing sectors. Bad because these things wedge out the businesses of the future, will attract an import tax from customer nations who do price carbon, hindering the competitiveness of Australian exports. These current policies stifle change in business models and innovation and invention and continue uncertainty as the inevitable changes required to decouple economic growth from carbon based energy production are delayed. The most likely result of this, the greatly increased costs to industry and to Australia of acting later rather than sooner. And of course, the lack of action on climate change (and worst the denial of it) will increasingly make parts of Australia more difficult to live and work in.

All this as the Great Barrier Reef shrinks before the world’s eyes.

As we think back across the last 40 years and our relationship with Australia the most significant Australian event was discovering our first bark painting, an extraordinary image by Mick Kubarkku (Balang subsection, Kulmarru clan, Duwa moiety, Eastern Kuninjku language - Dec). Following this trail led us to an Indigenous world of great distinction.

Mick painting a bark (image courtesy of Margie West)

As for Darwin, the city was rebuilt and is flourishing. Let’s hope that Australia has learnt to build in places and in ways that make these buildings safe the next time around. Let’s also hope it learns about climate change before it is too late.

As for our book collection, it languishes in Australia, a store in Central Victoria, to be rescued soon if it still survives.

The sun rises over Gunbalanya to the east of Darwin

Black and white images reproduced courtesy of Longman. A number of the people shown in the slider above were friends and colleagues of Peter Hylands some two decades or so after the photos were taken. We honour our friends here. The sixties revolution had changed Britain but even so there were no personal computers, fax machines, mobiles or the Internet and no hand held devices. We all used pens and typewriters and the Telex machine to do our work.

Remnants: An older Darwin