My first publication was a prize-winning poem in my school’s annual magazine, The Phoenix in 1962. This literary effort was encouraged by my English teacher at the time, and was influenced by the social realism poetry I was reading in a Penguin collection of modern poetry.
In turn it was inspired by the observations and experiences I’d had in regular wanderings around the Sydney waterfront and the Rocks, which on Sundays usually ended up amongst the crowds, excitements and the smorgasbord of orators in the Domain.
Since then some 700 pieces of my work have appeared in at least 120 publications. It is a diverse corpus of journalism, articles, essays, reviews, a few short stories and poems, and Letters to the Editor. Amongst the credits are academic and mainstream publications, but most are not. I have mainly written and published as part of the life and times of social movements, trade union organisations, and dissident outfits. Hence my term ‘engaged writing’.
Some of the publications that have carried my pieces will have difficulty surviving the ravages of time. An example is OINK. Published anonymously in Sydney during the late 1960s, it was a one-off magazine, distributed in ways that left little paper trails. Roneod, robust and sizeable, it was cover-to-cover anti-establishment libels and satirical porn, part of the cultural and political protest movement of the time. Par for the course; publications beginning with ambitious futures but only managing a few issues is often the way with engaged writing and publishing.
For access to a significant part of this output, click on the link below.
A swag of Letters to the Editor are part of the output. During the 1970s through to the 1990s, Education, journal of the New South Wales Teachers Federation (a trade union I was a militant member of), published letters on education and industrial issues from the rank and file. The maximum length was 400 words before ’editing’ cut in. Pages were generously devoted to these letters and according to anecdotal evidence, these were the most popular and well-read parts of the newspaper formatted journal. Before the advent of electronic social media, this rank and file forum helped generate the senses of community and common cause that contributed to the industrial strength of a workforce spread widely, in many places remotely, across the vastness of NSW.
Commitment to ‘engaged writing’ evolved out of my experiences of the 1960s and 70s. Participation in the anti-Vietnam War, anti-conscription, and student movements involved writing, proselytising, and countering powerful forces ranged against what were initially causes with small support bases. Getting the message out and about involved publishing in whatever outlets were available, and in their absence, the creation of these. The gestetner roneo machine was a time-honoured printing/publication asset. However the increasing availability of, and access to, cheap offset printing technology opened a printing and publishing floodgate.
Graduating with BA (Hons) in 1968 from Sydney University, my undergrad studies in history helped shape my commitment to ‘engaged writing’. At Sydney Uni, the history of ideas still got a run at the time, and I had an immersion in the histories of Martin Luther and the rise of Protestantism, the English Civil War, the American Revolution, and the revolutions that variously shaped Europe during the 19th century.
I came out of this with an understanding that whilst there were great and seminal works by great and important thinkers and writers, it was often unheralded pamphleteers and journalists who conveyed the gist and discussion of these to wide audiences beyond learned political and intellectual elites – to the grassroot audiences who made history. My purchase in May 1970 of a copy of the paperback edition (1968) of E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class , with its ‘from below’ exploration of working class politics and culture in the period 1780-1832, and in this the roles of a galaxy of writers and opinion formers excised from previous histories, was an inspiring and confirmational encounter.
By invitation during 1968, I began contributing journalism and articles to the Communist Party of Australia’s weekly newspaper Tribune. In 1970 the militant Seamen’s Union of Australia commissioned me to complete a history of the union commenced during the early years of the Cold War by historian Brian Fitzpatrick (1905-1965). These two experiences became revelatory gateways to a rich Australian tradition, culture, and practice of journalism, writing, and intellectual life beyond the academy and what was regarded at the time as mainstream.
Thus was my course set.
The following select list of titles of publications that have carried my work, indicates the diversity and spread of my engaged writing: Advanced Skills Teacher, Australian Author, Australian English Teacher, Australian Left Review, Australian Options, Australian Rationalist, Australian Society, Australian Writer, Babel, Brisbane Line, Broadside Weekly, Cold War Dossier, Common Cause, Dissent, Education, Education Alternatives, Education Links, ETA Newsletter, Eureka Street, Green Left Weekly, Guardian, Hermes, Honest History, History Australia, Honi Soit, HTA Newsletter, Hummer, Illawarra Unity, International Gramsci Journal, JAS Review of Books, Journal of Industrial Relations, Journal of Political Economy, Labour History, Labour History Melbourne, Left Forum, leftwrites, Living Daylights, Maritime Worker, Morning Star, Nation Review, National U, Sydney Morning Herald, Old Mole, Oink!, Outlook, Overland, Progress in Political Economy, Quarterly Essay, Queensland Journal of Labour History, Radical Sydney/Radical History, Recorder, Seamen’s Journal, Sleuth, Sunday Review, Sun-Herald, Solidarity, Teacher Feedback, Tharunka, The Age, Australian Teacher, The Education Network, The Eye, The Guardian, The Guardian (CPA), The Metal Worker, The Republican, Tribune, Twentieth Century Communism, Union Recorder, Union Songs, Vision, Wednesday Commentary, Workers Online, Working Life, Worksite.
- Rowan Cahill 2021-