State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 64 Spring 1999


From Barjai to Overland A Note on Barrie Reid

The contribution of Barrett Reid (1926-1995) to the development of public library services in Victoria is well known to the readers of this journal and has been widely recognized. His outstanding public service was honoured by various awards in his lifetime, and is now commemorated by a scholarship in public library management studies.
Those familiar with the range of his professional and public activities could be misled into thinking that his literary activities were marginal to his life. In reality, he had a long and quite separate career as a creative writer and literary editor, a career that began when he was a schoolboy and ended only with his death. To the literary world he was first known as Barrie Reid, and when later in his life he chose to use his full name it was hard for many of us to make the change. The purpose of this brief note is to draw attention to his remarkable record as editor of literary magazines over half a century.
Growing up as he did in a household where the father recited poems to his children, it is not surprising that he loved reading poetry and that as a teenager he began to write poetry himself. What is surprising is that, along with fellow-students at Brisbane State High School, Laurence Collinson and Cecel Knopke, he started a magazine which quickly connected with the literary avant-garde in Adelaide and Melbourne. Called Barjai: A Meeting Place for Youth, the magazine began in 1943 as a roneoed bi-monthly of eight pages, but achieved the dignity of print with No. 12 in January 1944. Contributors had to be under 21. Thea Astley, future novelist, won a poetry prize in a competition judged for the magazine by Clem Christesen, editor of Meanjin Papers. Laurence Collinson wrote ‘Letters to Modern Poets’, telling T.S. Eliot: ‘Since I first began to read modern poetry, you have been the poet in whom I have been most interested’. Barrie G. Reid contributed not only poems but also critical essays, in a March 1944 survey entitled ‘Modern Reading’ admitting that Max Harris's The Vegetative Eye was ‘most difficult to assess’.
The discovery of Angry Penguins and his subsequent meeting with the Reeds was a central experience of his life. Barjai came to an end in 1947, when Barrie turned 21; but by this time he was part of the Reeds’ ‘Heide’ circle. In 1944 he had become the youngest contributor to Angry Penguins, with a poem in No. 6. At Christmas 1946 he had hitch-hiked down to Melbourne, arriving at ‘Heide’ as Sidney Nolan was nearfinishing the Kelly series of paintings. He and Nolan talked poetry, and the mechanics of poetry, and exchanged poems as they walked over the summer paddocks by the river. Among other things, Barrie talked about the story of Mrs Fraser, after whom Fraser Island is named; the result was a trip there with Nolan the following year, and a memorable series of paintings.
With the ending of Angry Penguins, two years after the damaging Ern Malley hoax, and the winding-up of Reed & Harris, came what Max Harris dubbed ‘the faded years’. In 1952, ever hopeful, Harris teamed with John Reed and Barrie Reid to begin a new journal called significantly Ern Malley's Journal. It was an unsuccessful attempt to rekindle the sense of creative possibilities that many writers had felt during the Angry Penguin years. Barrie Reid contributed an essay, ‘New Time, New Place’, to the first issue; and later debated ‘The Situation of the Artist’, as well as contributing poems. By the fourth issue the editors were acknowledging that ‘there is simply not the volume of creative writing in Australia we had hoped to unearth’; and with the sixth number, in 1955, Ern Malley's Journal came to an end.
The first number of Overland had appeared in 1954 (‘incorporating The Realist Writer’) under the editorship of Stephen Murray-Smith. With a radical-nationalist orientation (its motto being an inoffensive version of Furphy's ‘temper, democratic; bias, offensively Australian’), it quickly established itself alongside Meanjin as a journal of literature and opinion. In 1967, in what proved to be a fruitful partnership, Barrie Reid became Assistant Editor, and was given a free hand in choosing the poetry. In Murray-Smith's eyes, Reid's coming to Overland was ‘a symbolic healing of the split in Australian painting and writing that occurred between the Modernist aesthetic and the Realist politicos’ (Weekend Australian, 26-27 October 1985).
When Murray-Smith died suddenly in 1988, Barrie Reid succeeded him. Overland had been so much a personal creation of its formidable editor, and had been shaped by him for so long, that any successor might well have felt inhibited. Reid's editorship, which ended in 1993 only because he was too ill to continue, was an unqualified success. Overland had never been narrowly ideological, and while taking ‘a radical editorial stance’ Murray-Smith had occupied the middle ground. Reid was comfortable in maintaining this position, but he brought a new aesthetic emphasis, which was evident in the enhanced visual appearance of the magazine. The most distinctive feature of his editorship, however, was the broadsheet, Overland Extra, which introduced new writers. ‘My pleasure was always in publishing new writers, young or old, and seeing their writing develop through publication’, he wrote in Overland 131, the last he edited.
Barrie Reid's only book of poems, Making Country, was published a few weeks after his death. Generous to other poets, he had himself held back when it came to getting his own writing published. His friend of longstanding, Philip Jones, suggested in an obituary (Australian, 8 August 1995) that for years he had not submitted poems for publication because he had been so deeply shocked by the Ern Malley affair. During his long editorial involvement with Overland (Nos 39-131) from 1967 to 1993, he pursued a catholic policy in choosing poems, perhaps disconcerting some of the earlier readers, who may not always have welcomed the unfamiliar and adventurous.
In the first number of Overland that he edited (No. 112) Barrie Reid included a review of The Poems of Ern Malley, edited by Max Harris and Joanna Murray-Smith, in which Dorothy Hewett (whose editorial association with Overland had begun in 1965) declared: ‘I still see myself as one of Ern Malley's children’. Cultural historians of the

An early photograph of Heide, the ‘meeting place’ of artists and writers, where Barrie Reid spent his last years. Ms 13186, Reed Papers, La Trobe Australian Manuscripts Collection.

future will certainly want to examine the unexpected links and continuities between Angry Penguins and Overland.
In his extremely busy life Reid was active in a number of organisations, and the three publications mentioned here are not the only ones in which he had some editorial role. But Barjai, Ern Malley's Journal and Overland are important markers in Australian literary culture, and through his editorial work on these journals he was (in his own phrase) ‘making country’, helping to create a richer cultural life in Australia.
It is appropriate that Albert Tucker's portrait of him (reproduced on the back cover of this number of the journal) shows him outside ‘Heide’, the home of John and Sunday Reed, which had been the focus of his creative life from the time he first saw it as a Brisbane schoolboy, and was his home after the death of the Reeds. The idea of the ‘meeting place’ (‘barjai’ is an Aboriginal word with that meaning) was at the heart of the first literary enterprise he was involved in; and it remained a constant with him. In editing Overland he valued the ‘extraordinary tradition of close relationship between magazine and reader’, and the huge correspondence he conducted with contributors left him feeling that he was ‘the only friend of a thousand would-be poets’ (Overland, 131). For him ‘Heide’ had literally been a meeting place of artists and writers. He had shared in the dismay at the collapse of Angry Penguins, but in his own life he had kept alive its spirit, becoming in his last years a kind of informal historian and guardian of the narrative of ‘Heide’. And he lived long enough to see that brave avant-garde venture in which he had participated revalued and celebrated.
John Barnes