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Issue #1459      16 June 2010

The Making of a Rebel Journalist – The Early Life of Wilfred Burchett

“… [He is] the greatest journalist Australia has ever produced, and one of the best foreign correspondents the world has ever seen.” So writes Nick Shimmin in the preface to Wilfred Burchett’s autobiography, Rebel Journalist. A big call, and one that inspires widespread controversy. Burchett has been accused of everything from Stalinist stooge, traitor and KGB agent to being, as Bertrand Russell put it “a contemporary historian … a meticulous journalist.”

Wilfred Burchett during interview with the UN reporters, Korea, April 1953.

Whatever the epithet, Wilfred Burchett’s contribution to our understanding of the 20th century is undeniable.

He was the first westerner to see and narrate the devastation of Hiroshima; he wrote the untold story of the division of Germany; he exposed the use of chemical weapons in Korea; he became an Australian actually living in communist Eastern Europe; he lived the life of the guerrilla with the Viet Cong, like a fish in a peasant sea, and, repeatedly, he was spurned by his native land, Australia.

So why do so few people know of Wilfred Burchett? Why are his invaluable sources so rarely available in our schools? Why no glorious paeans as there are for CEW Bean, who is said to have helped frame the “Australian character” through his creation of the ANZAC legend?

The answer is that Burchett was a rebel journalist, a “communist”, in fact, who lived the role and risked his neck to provide an alternative view: one that promoted the struggle of underdogs, one that had no great sympathy for war nor for the conventions of journalism. He never worked in a newspaper office, and went by the premise that you never really know what’s going on till you see it in person.

Yet Wilfred Burchett’s early life experience was what one might call “typically Australian”, maybe even iconically “pioneering”, and it is instructive to understand the events and experiences that led him to the life of émigré internationalist and establishment outcast.

Family Background

There was nothing in Burchett’s ancestry to suggest radical politics, just a powerful Methodist sense of justice and a profound work ethic. In 1876 Burchett’s immigrant English grandfather, Caleb, selected 320 acres of thick bushland in South East Gippsland, near Pooyong, of which he chose to clear 80.

Caleb endured all the struggle of a typical pioneer: each acre of land contained 25-30 giant blue gums, which had to be ring-barked, burned, grubbed, cleared, heaped, burned again, potashed and ploughed as some form of preparation for crops and livestock. All by hand, with axe and fire.

At first the plants and animals flourished from the rich soil and lush grassland created, but the very success of the white settlers proved their undoing. Native wallabies devoured the sweet English grass, imported grubs and caterpillars retarded seed growth, a plague of Scotch Thistle covered the landscape. When Caleb bought sheep, dingoes ate every one on the first night, and then turned their attention to the young calves, pigs and poultry.

Even this did not drive the determined “Free Selectors” from their mud-floored log and bark cabins. But the onset of rabbits and ever more abundant bracken-fern did. Settlers were obliged to buy fine-mesh fencing to stop the rabbits and barbed wire to keep the wallabies and dingoes out, all on high interest bank loans. When the price of their produce slumped in Melbourne, as it frequently did, many could not repay their debts and walked off the land, leaving it to the banks.

At last Caleb leased out his property and returned to Brunswick in Melbourne to resume his life as a stonemason, taking Wilfred’s father George, just a boy at the time, with him. A half a century later George was back, with his own family, to strike a blow at another 30 acres near Pooyong. The same struggle with nature ensued and the same pattern emerged. After initial clearance success and the purchase of a dairy herd, a great fire consumed the district and cooked the cows.

Gradually the cattle were replaced, but not Wilfred’s Uncle Clement, also working in the area, who died of pneumonia for the simple lack of medical help nearby.

Another slump in the Melbourne markets meant that a whole potato crop was made worthless, but the final straw for Wilfred’s father was the affliction of his herd with “Black-leg fever”. In Wilfred’s words, “…of a thriving herd of pedigree jerseys, we saved only the skins.”

Ballarat

A subsequent move to the regional centre of Ballarat provided an impetus to Wilfred’s education. He could read freely and his schooling proceeded undisturbed, but there was more.

Father George learned carpentry and studied architecture at night. By the mid 1920s he was soon able to build his own, and other peoples’ dwellings in Ballarat and accumulate the funds to create a special project: a reinforced concrete home built (with full family involvement) via wooden moulds, according to Wilfred, the first of its kind in Australia.

Shortly after the Burchetts moved in to their remarkable residence, Wilfred’s older sister Amy was stricken with a rare form of bone cancer called sarcoma and had to be hospitalised. Her fretting parents did everything to help Amy, engaging the best specialists, hospitals and treatments in Melbourne, including the newly developed Radium Therapy – all of which, in an age of non-socialised medicine, was incredibly expensive. Nevertheless, Amy died at the age of 18 and the family was deeply shaken by the loss.

Meanwhile, in the late 1920s, a slump had occurred in the building industry and George could find no work to pay off his considerable debts: he was obliged to declare bankruptcy and the family watched as bank assessors came and took every item of value from their home. The home they had built with their own hands now passed over to indifferent bean-counters who had done nothing to create it. The young boy Wilfred witnessed the total humiliation of his family.

With the onset of the Depression, the Burchetts had no other option but to find whatever livelihood was available: Wilfred, by now a strapping teenager, found seasonal work by “Jumping the Rattler”, picking fruit and farm labouring, living the life of a Swaggie and getting by on his wits. George and his relatives moved back to Pooyong to revive the farm, grow peas and potatoes and trap rabbits, now no longer a pest but a boon for survival.

Reassessment

Wilfred also returned to Pooyong and his family, to help out. In classic Marxist sense he had been confronted by harsh “objective reality” and now came the challenge to match that reality with some kind of explanation. His schooling and reading progressed apace. At night he learned a variety of languages and began to take an interest in politics.

His father, who had always been a Nationalist (conservative), and had even stood as a candidate for the party in Ballarat, now began to reassess his position. Together they helped establish the Pooyong Discussion Club which invited intellectuals and progressives from Melbourne to speak on “topical and controversial subjects”. It became a popular focus for local enlightenment, but to the right-wing patriots of Pooyong it was downright subversive. Under pressure from the district RSL, Wilfred was consequently forced out of the local cricket team!

Anxious to avoid being a burden to his family during the greatest economic depression in human history, and seeking some relief in adventure, Wilfred decided to leave Pooyong and travel north.

Cane-cutting

There followed one of the more notorious train journeys on record, when on a frozen frosty night just outside Maitland Wilfred jumped the rattler and clung to the icicle-covered tarpaulin of a goods wagon all the way to Coffs Harbour. From there, he made his way north to the Clarence River to find employment with a well-off dairy-sugar farmer.

Wilfred’s ambition was to cut cane because he’d heard the pay was good, but this was not his brutish employer’s whim. Instead he was to wake before dawn to milk the cows, separate the milk and cream in time to start “general duties” around the farm. His “quarters” were a bran bag bed in the barn, along with the other servant boy.

In fact, his employer was a bully who brought exploitation and misery to all he met and dealt with: he scrounged for every penny. When cleaning a cane-field in preparation for the cutters, Burchett noticed the presence of rats and their excrement. When the cutters discovered the field was infested with rats they demanded it be burned on health grounds, but the farmer refused because it would reduce the cane value by 10 percent.

Wilfred was impressed with the upright dignity of the cane-cutters and the power of their union solidarity. In the end, the farmer-boss was decked by one of the cutters, and when he fulminated about revenge they simply threatened to black-ban his farm for good. The field was burned, the cane cut, and Burchett quit the realm of cane-cutting with some singular lessons about “…what could be done with organisation and solidarity.”

The Egon Kisch Affair

Egon Kisch’s sensational 1934 visit to Australia at the behest of the Movement Against War and Fascism should be studied more widely in this country’s history because of the impact it had, not just on people like Wilfred Burchett, but for the tens of thousands of others whose political perspective took a somersault thereafter.

Burchett begins his account witnessing the arrival of Czech writer Kisch at the Sydney Domain amid 20,000 others. Already Kisch’s passport and luggage had been seized in Fremantle, Interior Minister Menzies had vowed that this anti-Fascist was undesirable and would definitely “not set his foot on the soil of the Australian Commonwealth”. He had then jumped ship in Melbourne, broke his leg in two places, and, in agony, had been forcibly put back on the ship. Upon arrival in Sydney he was: smuggled ashore, his leg placed in plaster, found by Justice Evatt to be illegally stopped from entering the country, re-arrested, subjected to the Dictation Test in Gaelic which he failed, held in detention subject to appeal and then released on bail, which finally gave him the chance to speak at the Domain.

The minister who introduced Kisch, the Reverend Albert Rivett, suddenly collapsed and died of a heart attack, whereupon Kisch himself was hoisted onto the lorry and said: “My English is broken, my leg is broken, but my heart is not broken, for the task I was given by the anti-fascists of Europe, is fulfilled when I speak to you, the anti-fascist people of Australia…”

When he had finished and the lorry moved off, Wilfred joined the crowd that formed a defensive wall around it as it moved down Macquarie Street, with clenched fists raised and singing the International. Ultimately Kisch was found guilty of “illegal residence” and sentenced to six months’ jail, but by then he had become a “cause celebre” and Menzies wanted nothing more than that Kisch be gone. The government returned his passport and his ticket, and paid fifteen hundred pounds costs for the various legal proceedings.

Burchett recalled: “Kisch became my instant hero. I was impressed by the quality of the man himself, his physical and moral courage, the way in which he used his pen to uncover injustice and to fight for life’s good causes. Subconsciously I accepted him as the model of a progressive journalist…”

Wilfred Burchett – International Journalist

There is no question that Egon Kisch profoundly influenced Burchett’s future life. Shortly afterwards he sailed to Europe, where he made London his first base and mixed with Jewish refugees from Germany – he ventured into the heart of Nazism, and from his reports of experiences there gained work as a foreign journalist. When war broke out, he was sent to India and Burma where his analysis of British obtuseness towards the Japanese presaged the tragic fall of Singapore.

He was to become an unstoppable force in international journalism: his timeliness, political astuteness, relevant observation and clear, simple style, meant that his news was always in demand. Activists on the left always suspected what was happening in various overseas crises: Wilfred Burchett repeatedly supplied the truth, because he was there, a “rebel journalist”, on the spot.

Read his story.

Memoirs of a Rebel Journalist – The Autobiography of Wilfred Burchett edited by G Burchett and N Shimmin, published by University of NSW Press.  

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