Blown to Blazes and other works of J.B. Blair
Edited by David Blair. Sydney: Published by the Editor, 2007. Printed and bound by Griffin Press, South Australia.ISBN 9780980399707 (hbk.), ISBN 9780980399714 (pbk.). Hbk. $50 + plus postage, pbk. $30 + postage. 317 pp.
The Bulletin was killed early this year—its last issue being the Australia Day 2008 Souvenir Issue, which appeared 29 January 2008. That issue contained political comment, essays by Australian writers, and just one cartoon. There were no poems or short stories.
Blown to Blazes, a compilation of works by James (Jim) Beatton Blair (1903–1991), contains short stories, humorous fiction – some fitting the science fiction category—and tales of family life. The book could be looked upon as a memorial to the Bulletin writer J B Blair and as recognition of the talented writers and artists who were first published in that paper.
David Blair, eldest son of the journalist, has gone to immense trouble in compiling the book from his father’s press cuttings and from research in the Fisher Library at the University of Sydney and the State Library of New South Wales. He received help in this task from his brother Richard and from his wife Elva. Advice, too, came from the artist Norman Hetherington, the late David Adams and Jack Prior, all of The Bulletin.
Jim Blair, born in Port Augusta, South Australia, worked as an accountant for the Adelaide Steamship Company, then, while there, studied part-time at the University of Adelaide. In his spare time he wrote some short stories and submitted these to the Bulletin. Three were accepted, and in 1934 he was invited to join the Bulletin’s staff. He moved to Sydney and learnt his journalism on the job, becoming Editor of The Australian Woman’s Mirror from 1936 to 1942.
After Singapore fell to the Japanese, he joined the Army and served in Papua-New Guinea in the Buna–Gona campaign and then in Aitape– Wewak. At war’s end he came back to Sydney and The Bulletin. He returned to the typewriter on which he was to produce political articles and many contributions to other sections of the paper. The cover shows him at the keys of what I think is a sturdy old Remington typewriter. Newspaper offices then were noisy places, clattering with the sound of typewriters, of linotypes and presses. Offices smelled of cigarette smoke, and the compositing room of hot metal. Computers were unknown.
The Bulletin was at 252 George Street, Sydney. Jim Blair got to know this city: Mockbell’s Café, the pylon lookout on the newish Harbour Bridge, the streets, the pubs and the trams.
One story, “The Lost Tram”, describes how the driver and conductor both new to town – set out from North Sydney, aiming for Chatswood, but end up at a completely different suburb, Lane Cove.
“Making Whorple Sharkproof” is an amusing account of how a shark-proof net was put in place near a small seaside beach, with the hope of drawing tourists and swimmers there. A band played and the Mayor spoke, cutting a silken ribbon attached to the net on opening day. But—at this moment a black fin was seen and a large shark was swimming safely within the net. The throng left the shark there and swam outside the enclosure.
The title story, “Blown to Blazes”, is set at the time of the Great War (not then called World War I). A British naval ship has a new weapon. With the aid of television (invented, but never yet seen in Australia in 1935 when Blair wrote this piece), guns could fire missiles six thousand miles into the stratosphere. The target was the German squadron of von Spee in the Indian Ocean. The British vessel, positioned in the South Pacific, could see the enemy clearly through the “television mirror”. The guns fired. The story has an explosive and unexpected ending.
A very different story, gentle and affectionate, is “Chicken Dinner”, based upon the Blair children. The “Noyse family” had three sons and a girl. (The real Blairs had three sons—a daughter was yet to be born.) Norman Hetherington, after seeing photographs of the little children, produced charming little illustrations for the text, which are included in the book.
After 70 years some of the articles and attitudes seem dated – as dated as present newspaper articles will look in 2078. Australians today are fond of whales. They would be disgusted by the thought of curing rheumatism by enclosing the sufferer in the rotting carcase of dead whale, or by trying to banish warts from a small boy’s hand by thrusting it into a whale’s corpse. (See “Whaling for Pleasure”.)
Even words have changed meaning. One story is called “In Boob, Out of Boob”. The editor David Blair adds an endnote to this wartime army story: “‘Boob’ means ‘prison’—rather different from the present-day meaning!”
To me one of the best—and saddest—stories is “The Sheoak”, written in 1951, but never published until now. A small boy has climbed a tree. A funeral passes. He watches, and overhears the words of an adult. His reaction? Read it. Find out.
J B Blair was prolific. He wrote four books, and 56 short stories and essays, as well as many articles. His wife, Phyllis, wrote a short story and an article which are also in this book. The book contains, too, notes on “noteworthy Bulletin people”, including Norman Lindsay, Malcolm Ellis, Ronald McCuaig and Douglas Stewart, the poet, who for long edited the Red Page of The Bulletin.
The artists’ work is again revealed. The hardback cover and the paperback have illustrations by Percy Lindsay, John Frith and Unk White. Among those who illustrated Blair’s stories are WEP(William Pidgeon) and Aubrey (George) Aria, as well as those just mentioned. The book is filled with such illustrations. Cartoons by Frith show the film director Ken Hall, the photographer Frank Hurley, the actress Yvonne Banvard (“actor” is the word used today), and Mo, the comedian. Also pictured—in a photograph— is the radio man Bob Dyer, whose show Winner Take All gave prizes for the winners of quizzes. Jim Blair was a contestant who did “take all” the prizes. He kept some and sold some—to buy a much needed refrigerator for the Blair household.
The days of the old Bulletin ended in 1960 when Australian Consolidated Press took it over. The new editor, Donald Horne, dropped the offensive old masthead slogan “Australia for the White Man” and made many other changes. Old journalists such as Blair left 252 George Street (also illustrated in the book) to seek other work. Blair found it as the research officer with the New South Wales Public Service Board. As well, even after retirement, he kept writing for other journals. This book is a reminder of past time and a skilled journalist.